Friday, November 12, 2010

Exit Polls: What are they good for?

On election night last week we heard a great deal about the results from various exit polls that showed independents were breaking for the Republican Party and that people were frustrated with the lack of economic growth over the last two years. If you watched the election night coverage on any of the major cable news stations I’m sure you noticed the various people whose job it was simply to breakdown the exit poll results. Of course reporting the results of the exit polls isn’t exciting enough so many times there would be some enhanced 3D graphic or futuristic computer screen to jazz-up these results. However, many first-time or casual viewers of politics were probably left wondering what an exit poll even is.

At the most basic level, an exit poll is no different than any other poll except that it is taken immediately after voters leave their polling station. The intent of the exit poll is to determine who is turning out to vote on Election Day and whether the vote is breaking in favor of a particular candidate or political party. Just as in pre-election polls, researchers attempt to ensure they are getting a representative sample of voters, but no sample is ever perfect so there will always be a margin of error. Additionally, there has been a trend in recent years that many exit polls systematically “tilt” in one direction in which the polls will inaccurately favor either the Republican or Democratic candidate. The way in which the media utilizes the results from the exit polls often creates an even larger problem, which will be the topic of a future blog post.

Despite some of the issues with exit polls they are a fascinating source of data for those of us who try to figure out what happened on election night and why it happened. What I wanted to do for the remainder of this post is to breakdown a couple of interesting results from the national exit polls that were not covered too extensively in the media.

- White people like to vote: Much is made of the increasing political significance of racial and ethnic minorities in American politics. However, a quick glance of the exit polls confirmed that White-Caucasians consisted of 78% of the electorate on election night. That is an overwhelming percentage when you realize that White-Caucasians only consist of 64% of the overall population. Additionally, White-Caucasians voted at a 60-40 clip in favor of the Republican Party.

- Latinos continue to stay at home: On the opposite side of the spectrum Latinos had a very poor night in terms of voter turnout. According to the exit polls, Latinos consisted of 8% of the electorate on election night, despite consisting of around 16% of the overall population. Amongst the Latinos that did turn out to vote, they favored the Democratic Party at a nearly 2-to-1 rate. If Democrats seek to hold onto the presidency in 2012 they will have to do a better job at mobilizing Latinos since they are a substantial portion of the population in large Electoral College states such as Texas, California, New York, and Florida. Latinos are also a critical portion of the electorate in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

- Catholics like to swing: In 2008, White Catholics split nearly 50-50 between Obama and McCain (with a slight edge to McCain), but in this election White Catholics came out hard in favor of Republican candidates at nearly a 60-40 rate. Catholics have proven to be consistent swing-voters from one election to another since they are often torn between the foreign affairs policies of the Democratic Party and the pro-life abortion policy of the Republican Party. Getting Catholics to swing back toward the Democratic Party is going to be critical in 2012 if Obama wants to keep states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the “blue” column.

- Gay people can be Republicans too: It is important to note that sexual orientation is a tricky subject in exit polls since there are many cases where people may not feel comfortable admitting their sexuality in a face-to-face setting. However, amongst those individuals who admitted to being GLB (gay, lesbian, bisexual), 30% of them voted Republican. This statistic surprised some people because of the very public anti-gay marriage stance that many Republican lawmakers have taken over the past decade, but it shouldn’t surprise us at all. When it comes to politics, Gay-Americans are not constantly thinking about their sexuality. They are subject to the same economic pressures as everyone else in society and believing in small government is not something that is influenced by sexual orientation. This statistic should remind us not to paint various groups with too broad of a brush stroke when it comes to electoral politics.

- Voting for your enemy: One of the themes that emerged on election night was the fact that the public did not have a very high opinion of either political party. Over 50% of the voting public had an unfavorable view toward both the Republican and Democratic parties. However, the Republican Party was able to emerge victorious on election night because of the number of people who still voted for them despite having an unfavorable view of their party. Of the 53% of the public who said they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, nearly one-quarter of them still casted a ballot supporting the GOP.

These were just some of the interesting exit poll numbers that really stuck out to me. I hope you enjoyed taking a deeper look at the exit polls and I encourage you to share other results that may have jumped out at you.

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