Fall 2012

Long Live the Exit Poll

D. James Greiner and Kevin M. Quinn

We discuss the history of the exit poll as well as its future in an era characterized by increasingly effective and inexpensive alternatives for obtaining information. With respect to the exit poll's future, we identify and assess four purposes it might serve. We conclude that the exit poll's most important function in the future should, and probably will, be to provide information about the administration of the franchise and about the voter's experience in casting a ballot. The nature of this purpose suggests that it may make sense for academic institutions to replace media outlets as the primary implementers of exit polls.

D. JAMES GREINER is an Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. His research focuses on statistics and litigation, and his current projects involve redistricting, election administration, adjudicative system design, and the evaluation of delivery of legal services. His work has been published in the Review of Economics and Statistics and the Harvard Law Review, among other journals.

KEVIN M. QUINN is Professor of Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. His research, which focuses on judicial decision-making and statistical methodology, has been published in such journals as the Columbia Law Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Stanford Law Review. He currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of the American Statistical Association.

Is the exit poll intellectually dead? That is, in the foreseeable future, can exit polling serve a purpose other than allowing media operations to “call” elections a few hours earlier than official results become available? This process of calling elections, and the race among media organizations to be the first to do so, may serve a recreational purpose; but whether calling elections contributes much to a thriving democracy is uncertain.

Even if we consider a set of questions crucial to the social sciences and law about the nature of the electorate, it is still not immediately clear that exit polls have much of a future. Suppose we want to learn about the characteristics and motivations of voters. Are we better off with the exit poll–currently around forty-five years old–or with a combination of older (mail, telephone) and younger (Internet) forms of polling, which may now be able to provide a great deal of information more cheaply than exit polls can? The question becomes even sharper when we consider that it may be possible to combine results from the older and younger techniques with information from data aggregators, which compile a vast (and increasing) amount of specific and wide-ranging data on voters and potential voters. In short, we might conclude that the exit poll is unlikely to live much past middle age. .  .  .

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