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The Great Campaign Polling Conspiracy

By Michael Kinsley
November 14, 2012 6:30 PM EST
Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley

It’s a small matter, I know, compared with the historic issues now obsessing the commentariat, such as the fiscal cliff and how many mistresses and admirers former Army General David Petraeus could keep in the air simultaneously.

But before we say goodbye to the Campaign 2012, I would just like to point out that the entire drama of a close election, as played out in the news media on Election Day and evening, is basically fake. Like broadcasters (including a young Ronald Reagan) presenting baseball games in the early days of radio, the television networks know who’s going to win the game and more or less how it’s going to play out, inning-by-inning.

They know this primarily because of research conducted by the National Election Exit Poll on Election Day. And yet, in a perverse exercise of high-mindedness, the major news organizations have all agreed not to report the results of exit polls until after the polls have closed in a particular state.

It has evolved into a semireligious ritual. At 11 a.m. on Election Day, representatives of ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press entered a “quarantine room” with no telephones or Internet access. There, they sat and analyzed the exit polls until 5 p.m., when they released what they had to their employers, who got the data directly for the rest of the evening.

No Predictions

Exit-poll data is supposed to be used for demographic insights only -- not to predict the result. You can say, “Republicans are doing well tonight among upper-middle-class white men aged 35 to 45, wearing a red sweater vest and answering to the name of ’Champ.’” But you can’t say, “Chances are better than even that Obama’s got it in the bag.”

You can learn a lot from tiny samplings, comparing them with past results. By 6 on election night, CNN undoubtedly knew that President Barack Obama was going to win re-election. And they pretty much knew the Electoral College count. Or at least they knew it reliably enough to want to deny this information to their viewers.

Thus there was this stilted dialogue, airing sometime between 6 and 7 p.m. on CNN, between John King and Wolf Blitzer about Vigo County, Indiana:

“One little ad-lib here, if I can,” said King. “We’re starting to get results in Kentucky and in Indiana. Tiny results, 2 percent of the vote. I want to show you a little place in Indiana. Vigo County, 1.7 percent of the population. ... Only twice -- only twice since 1888 has Vigo County been wrong in picking a president. Why? Good question. But since the 1950s, this county has been right. It’s filling in blue at the moment. Look at that. That’s only 17 percent of the vote. We’ll see how it goes tonight, but you watch it blue now. If it’s blue at the end of the night, we’ll see if Vigo County’s streak continues.”

King seemed to be saying that if Vigo County stayed blue (that is, voted Democratic), it would continue its streak of picking the winner. That would seem to imply that Democrats were going to carry the day. King arguably saved himself at the end with a “we’ll see how it goes tonight,” but he sure sounded like someone assuming a Democratic victory at a time when he and everyone else were telling viewers that the race was too close to call. (For those of you scoring at home: Vigo County went for Obama by 339 votes.)

Blitzer then said thoughtfully: “Could be a bellwether, as they say; could be an indication of what’s going on. We’re going to watch all these states, all these counties, all these polling precincts very closely.” Then he tossed to Anderson Cooper, who added, “Who knew?”

The answer is that all three of them knew, or someone in the studio with them knew. But they were forbidden to say. When I worked at CNN, I was even forbidden to say that I was forbidden to say.

No Reporting

This is not merely an American insanity. In some European countries, reporting the results of exit polls (or sometimes of polls taken close to the election) is actually a criminal offense. The reason is that reporting the result while the polls are still open somehow devalues the votes of people who haven’t yet voted. This might discourage turnout, and even change the result.

Is this a valid concern? No. Now children, listen closely: Your vote is just as valuable -- or, if you prefer, just as worthless -- no matter when you exercise your franchise. Get over it. No national election (not even the 2000 presidential election) is ever decided by one vote. If it ever were, every voter at all times of day would be equally implicated. Exit polls can’t predict the outcome of a contest that close anyway.

If it bothers you that the result has been decided before you cast your vote, that unfortunately will still be true whether the exit polls -- and the conclusions experts draw from them -- are made public or not. Yes, the polls and experts can get it wrong. But the concern here is that they usually get it right. How can it devalue your vote to give you information you wouldn’t otherwise have? What unfair advantage does an early- morning voter (or someone who voted weeks ago, absentee) get from his or her lack of information?

Yes, voting is a good thing and should be encouraged. But people shouldn’t be tricked into voting, which is what this artificial suppression of information amounts to. And yes, it’s possible that some people -- rationally or otherwise -- will decide not to vote if the winner has already been announced. But there is no reason to think that one candidate’s supporters are more likely than another’s to drop out, so that this could change the result.

It’s easy to see why the TV networks don’t mind putting on a play if the suspense keeps people watching past 6:30 p.m. Especially when they get civic brownie points for doing so. And why is this so important? Maybe it’s not so very important -- a writer needs some hobbyhorses, and this is one of mine. It amazes me that, with the encouragement of the government, not to mention an endless string of foundations and commissions and pompous individuals, some of the biggest players in the media business conspire to present a view of the world that they know to be false.

It’s as if the government staged the whole walk-on-the-Moon thing in a warehouse somewhere, or as if Obama was born in Kenya. Except this one is for real.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on a tax compromise both parties can live with and on how to fund oversight of nonprofit groups; Caroline Baum on the CEO group that wants to fix the debt; Ezra Klein on why tax reform won’t live up to its billing; Jonathan Mahler in defense of John Calipari and the one-season collegiate basketball career; Tim Weiner on echoes of dark FBI history in the David Petraeus scandal.

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at mkinsley@bloomberg.net or @michaelkinsley on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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