Anyone surfing through the news last Tuesday at 11 p.m. might have thought that several exit polls in California had all come up with the same prediction of a successful recall effort and a Schwarzenegger victory. Each of the networks attributed the predictions to their "own" exit polls, though in fact they all relied on just one -- conducted by the Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International research firm.
For a decade, the networks had relied on Voter News Service (VNS) to conduct their exit polls, but mistakes in the 2000 presidential election and the collapse in the 2002 midterm elections led the networks to disband VNS and look elsewhere. Ironically, they turned to Warren Mitofsky -- the veteran pollster who invented exit polls with CBS in 1967 and who had headed the first joint exit polling operation in 1990, called Voter Research Service (VRS), and the same Mitofsky who had been "let go" when VNS was formed in 1993.
Exit Polling: A Brief History
Exit polling has been around since 1967, when Mitofsky first introduced it to CBS as a way to help explain why voters chose one candidate over another. From then through the 1988 elections, each of the three major networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- conducted their own exit polls. Initially, the data were used just to explain the vote, but in the 1980 election, NBC for the first time used the exit polls to predict the outcome of the elections. The network blew away its competition -- correctly projecting races in state after state long before either ABC or CBS, who were still relying on actual vote count to make their predictions.
The other networks followed suit, and the competition to be the first to call election races intensified. By the late 1980s, however, the costs of competing with each other were causing the networks to reconsider their exit poll operations.
In 1989, Mitofsky submitted his proposal for an independent exit polling operation, which he would head, to conduct exit polls for the four major networks (including CNN), but the networks wanted more control and insisted on a "pooled" operation. In 1990, they launched their new joint effort, called Voter Research Service (VRS), with Mitofsky as director, but answerable to the network representatives.
After two election cycles, the 1990 and 1992 elections, the networks decided to consolidate their vote counting operation (National Election Service -- or NES) with their exit poll operation. This new joint venture was renamed Voter News Service (VNS), and Mitofsky was given the option of being the co-director, along with Bob Flaherty of VNS. But Mitofsky told me in an interview last week that he was unwilling to accept the constraints of the new position. The lines of authority were too ambiguous and he was not given final say on how the money was spent. "It was a recipe for disaster," he said.
Disaster did not befall VNS, however, until several elections later. Mistakes in the 2000 election led to a decision by the networks to upgrade the operation. They contracted with the Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio to provide the software upgrade, but Battelle failed to produce. On election night, the networks announced that there would be no exit poll data, either for analysis of the vote or for projections, because of glitches in the new software.
Baseline magazine (an Internet publication) quotes Mitofsky: "You simply can't have six different competing news agencies jointly managing a technology project of this scope." He goes on to say, "That's why I left VNS. Everyone is trying to decide what should be done and how. If you don't have a final decision maker who takes the responsibility for a project like this, you end up with what we saw in November."
Now, almost a decade and a half later, the networks have come around to Mitofsky's original conception. The new firm, headed by Mitofsky and his partner, Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research, has complete authority over all of the technical decisions, though the networks still have editorial control (to determine what goes on the questionnaires and which elections they will survey). The California recall election last week showed that the partnership between Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research appears to be working quite well, though an election in one state, where the results were so decisive, is not a particularly difficult test.
Edison/Mitofsky are contracted with the five major networks -- ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC -- plus The Associated Press to conduct exit polls for the 2004 election. Other media organizations can obtain exit poll results by paying a fee, though they will not have any input into the design of the questionnaire.
The first real test of the presidential election year for Edison/Mitofsky will be the Iowa caucuses, when their "entrance polls" (interviews with voters as they go into the caucuses, rather than after they exit the polling areas) will be used to predict the outcome. If anything goes wrong, the networks no longer have to take the blame. But if things go right as expected, each network will continue to take the credit.