Would You Buy a Used Poll from These Men?

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On Tuesday evening, June 5, two hours after voting closed in Wisconsin, the Los Angeles Times website was still headlining a story about how its exit polls projected an extremely close race — at a moment when the bulk of the vote was in, and Republican Governor Walker was running almost 20 points ahead of his opponent, Democratic Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee.

An hour before, CNN had somehow revised its exit-poll projections from 50–50 to a modest 52–48 for Walker. Even Fox News’ exit polls indicated a race that was “knife-edge” close. These polls were remarkably wrong. All the predictions were, including the predictions that brought 400 Democratic lawyers into Wisconsin, determined to contest a close election. (Wouldn’t you have loved to see those suits trooping off the plane in Milwaukee, cellphones and briefcases at the ready?) Walker won by a margin of about 7%, somewhat unusual in seriously contested American elections, but the same as President Obama’s national margin in 2008, sometimes hailed as a “landslide.”

Nevertheless, about an hour after CNN finally projected Walker as the winner, its hapless anchorman, John King, was still talking about the exit polls. While they were somewhat off, he said, they still indicated that Obama was way ahead of Romney in Wisconsin. Having said that, he turned to a map of the United States and changed Wisconsin from an expected Obama victory to a toss-up. Then, half an hour later, he opined, “Our exit polls clearly undercounted Walker” (yeah, do you think so?), but added that we shouldn’t project the Wisconsin results onto the national election in November. (Maybe — why not?)

Still later, with 80% of the votes in and Walker running 12 points ahead , King was prompted by his younger colleague, Erin Burnett (who, thank God for intelligence, kept harping on the disparity between polls and performance), to speculate about what had (obviously) gone wrong with the exit polls. Thereupon King babbled things about how you might overestimate something in an exit poll, or “guess” wrong, and that’s why you need to correct the exit polls when the actual votes come in. Huh? So what’s an exit poll? And what’s a poll? And why should we worship them? A commercial break; then King was asked another embarrassing question about the polls’ failure to predict what happened. He replied, “The exit polls were weighted anti-Walker, pro-Barrett.” Pardon me? What did he mean by that?

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