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Exit poll analysts going to great lengths to get it right

Times Staff Writer

Haunted by the bungled calls and leaked information that plagued the coverage of the last three nationwide elections, networks are taking no chances when it comes to Tuesday’s midterm.

This time around, the members of the National Election Pool -- a consortium of five broadcast and cable networks and the Associated Press that commissions exit polls of the major races -- have decided to sequester two analysts from each news organization in a secret “quarantine room” in New York, where they alone will get access to the first waves of data from precincts around the country.

Stripped of their cellphones and BlackBerrys -- and even monitored when they use the bathroom -- the representatives will be able to study the results of the surveys but will not be allowed to communicate them to their newsrooms until 5 p.m. EST. They must sign affidavits guaranteeing that they will not reveal any data before then.

The drastic measures are necessary, news executives said, to prevent the leaks that occurred in the 2004 presidential race, when early exit poll results indicating that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was in the lead rocketed through cyberspace.

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“People got the wrong impression, and while it didn’t impact how we projected the election, we realized that if the data was getting out and being misinterpreted, that’s not a good thing,” said Dan Merkle, director of ABC News’ decision desk.

Delaying the release of the data “may slow us down a little bit, but it’s a fact of life for all the networks,” he added.

The first wave of exit poll data is often misleading, polling experts say, because it is based solely on surveys of morning voters, a sample that is not necessarily representative of the rest of the electorate.

“The analogy I use is that of a scoreboard at a baseball game,” said Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director, one of those who will be in the quarantine room. “What the scoreboard says at the end of the first inning is not an accurate reflection of the final score, or even who is going to win.”

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Of course, the leaking of early data wasn’t the only problem in 2004. By the end of election day, the exit polls continued to show Kerry ahead of President Bush, a problem news directors attributed in part to the fact that Democrats have historically been more willing to answer the surveys than Republicans.

Another possible factor: the large number of college students hired to conduct the exit polls in 2004, some of whom apparently had trouble getting older voters to answer the surveys. This year, the consortium has recruited more professional interviewers and has stepped up training in an effort to capture a wider swath of the electorate.

“It’s kind of drip, drip, drip,” said Paul Friedman, vice president of CBS News. “If we made another bad mistake, it would kind of add to the toll taken on our credibility.”

After weathering fierce criticism for their botched calls of the 2000 presidential election, network executives said their prime directive now is to be right above all else.

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“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure,” said Marty Ryan, executive producer of political programs for Fox News. “We love being first in race calls, but our mandate ... is to be correct.”

The networks have pledged not to project winners based on the exit polls until after the polls are scheduled to close. Until then, the networks will use the exit poll data they get at 5 p.m. solely to discuss the demographics of the electorate -- in other words, who turned out to vote and what factors influenced their decisions, but not who they cast ballots for.

The National Election Pool replaced the beleaguered Voter News Service, which was disbanded in 2003 after failing to generate accurate data in two consecutive elections.

In forming its successor, the participating media organizations -- the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC -- decided to segregate the exit poll surveys, which are now conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, and the tabulation of the actual vote, which is done by the Associated Press.

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Each network has also assembled its own team of statisticians, political scientists and other consultants to analyze the numbers on election night, setting up major operations that resemble political war rooms. Some -- including NBC -- once again plan to keep their decision desks isolated from coverage on rival networks so executives won’t be influenced by their competitors in projecting a race.

“There has been a renewed zeal among all the networks, I think, to make sure what we’re saying is accurate, even if we’re not first,” Holland said. “If it takes those extra 10 seconds to make sure, we’ll take it.”

For all the precautions, those on the network front lines who will be making the calls Tuesday are anxious about several factors, including a potentially large number of absentee ballots and the possible malfunctions of untested voting systems.

“I am scared to death of the vote-counting equipment,” said Sheldon Gawiser, elections director for NBC News, noting that counties around the country will be using new election systems. “We have all kinds of quality control, but still -- something could happen.”

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matea.gold@latimes.com


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