The Exit Pollsters: An Election Night Quarantine

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Bloggers will have to sit tight on Election Day. At least, that's what the major television networks are hoping. After early exit poll data that favored John Kerry was leaked online in 2004, the networks have changed their policy. Now their exit pollsters will be quarantined together on Nov. 7 until 5 p.m. EST. This means that even network news executives themselves won't know the results until just before the evening newscasts. Will bloggers also remain in the dark until then? That's the goal.

The exit poll data that will be used by the media on Election Day comes from one source: the National Election Pool (NEP). The NEP is a consortium of six news organizations: the Associated Press, CNN and the news divisions of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. It was created in 2003, after a previous consortium of the same news organizations, the Voter News Service (VNS), failed to provide accurate exit poll data in both the 2000 and 2002 general elections.

The main difference between the two consortiums is that the NEP employs two outside consulting firms — Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International — to conduct the actual exit polls. (The AP still compiles county-by-county voting results.) All of the data, including polling on 27 statewide referendums considered newsworthy by the NEP, is available for purchase by other news organizations and political candidates. News organizations can get the data on Election Day, while the politicians must wait one week to receive the data.

On Election Day in 2004, the member networks and subscribing news organizations received the exit poll data as it came in during the early afternoon. So preliminary is this first wave of data that pollsters do not consider it conclusive; to avoid making inaccurate predictions, the networks are careful to wait until the second wave of data that comes in at 5 p.m.

But in 2004, the early exit poll data found its way online. Leaks of the early exit poll data were nothing new, but bloggers were. The bloggers likely received the exit poll data from sources at the networks and NEP-subscribing news organizations, says Joe Lenski, co-founder of Edison Media Research and the overseer of exit polling for the NEP.

Slate officially published the data as it received it, arguing that readers "should know as much about the unfolding election as the anchors and other journalists." Granted, Slate also cautioned that the early exit poll data was not conclusive. Yet that disclaimer did not stop bloggers from "chattering" about the early numbers, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. Because of the online leak, "it became widely believed from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m that John Kerry was ahead," Kohut says. "This online leak caused the stock markets to go down and sent Washington in the wrong direction as to what the election results would be."

To avoid that kind of leak this year, the NEP will implement its new quarantine policy. On Election Day, the 12 pollsters representing the six media organizations will be confined to one room, where they will have secured access to the polling data. According to an NEP spokeswoman, the pollsters will be monitored by three NEP-chosen polling experts, and the pollsters will not be allowed to use outside communication, including cell phones, laptops, BlackBerries and Treos. Lenski declined to be more specific, stating only that the room is in an "undisclosed location."

At 5 p.m., the pollsters will be allowed to contact their respective networks and supply them with the poll data. The NEP member organizations cannot prevent pollsters from making other calls, nor can they control the data once it's in the networks' hands, so if there are leaks, that's when they are likely to occur.

But the quarantine, it is hoped, will prevent the mistakes of 2004. Though the bloggers never actually called the election for John Kerry, their eager discussions and analysis of early poll data did influence Washington journalists and pundits, according to Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "Whenever early exit polls leak out, they can wreak havoc on Washington's mind-set," says Newport.

It's less certain what it does for the mind-set of voters. But next Tuesday, the NEP is not taking any chances.