Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Republicans are fuming again over erroneous exit polls that showed President Bush losing re-election and over television networks quickly calling some states for Sen. John Kerry while withholding such predictions for solid Bush states.

Although the Associated Press-led polling consortium was eventually proven wrong by actual hard tallies, the widely distributed exit polls prompted a number of TV pundits to talk on election night of how Mr. Bush likely had lost.

The Associated Press and TV networks do not publicly release the spreads, but the numbers leaked out to numerous Internet sites.

The polls initially showed Mr. Bush losing Ohio and Florida, virtually assuring the president would not achieve the 270 electoral votes he needed.

“There were a couple of the initial tranches that were way out of line with the final results,” said Michael Barone, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report who manned the Fox News Channel “decision desk” Tuesday night.

Asked whether the polls should be scrapped, as some Republicans have urged, Mr. Barone said the out-of-line polling “does raise that question.”

Barbara Levin, an NBC spokeswoman, defended the polling. “There were instances in which both President Bush and Senator Kerry had leads in early exit polling that everyone knew wouldn’t hold up,” she said in an e-mail message.

One problem with initial numbers was that women were overrepresented. Ms. Levin said, “Men and women often vote during different times of the day, but the voting samples do even out through the day.”

In the end, it was the Bush campaign that appeared to have the most accurate polling on the two make-or-break states. Bush operatives, including campaign manager Ken Mehlman, took to the airways to correct the network reporting. They showed, precinct-by-precinct, how the president would pull out a victory, contrary to exit poll projections.

For Republicans, it was all too reminiscent of 2000, when the TV networks wrongly called Florida for Al Gore at 7:45 p.m. — even while the state’s conservative panhandle region was still voting.

To this day, Republicans say this decision cost Mr. Bush thousands of west Florida votes and votes in the rest of the nation, as discouraged Republicans decided the election was lost and did not vote. The exit poll errors continued in 2002, when they showed Republicans losing key Senate seats, including Republican Wayne Allard in Colorado.

The second debacle prompted the networks to scrap the old Voter News Service and form a new group, National Election Pool. Like VNS, it is a consortium of AP and the TV networks ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and CNN. The actual polling is done by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Voters are interviewed as they leave a polling place.

Each network used its own statisticians to analyze NEP’s results, and then make their own calls after polls closed, but before all the hard voting tallies came in.

Mr. Barone was one of the first network analysts to notice that actual tallies did not agree with exit polls. In Florida, for example, counties around Tampa that normally vote big for Republicans only gave the president a 51 percent edge

“I thought, ‘these don’t make any sense,’” Mr. Barone recalled.

Republicans also perceive that the networks called states for the Democrats faster than for Republicans. On Tuesday night, for example, the networks called New Jersey for Mr. Kerry at the moment its polls closed. But reliable Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, which Mr. Bush easily carried, stayed “too close to call” for more than an hour.

The refusal to declare them Bush states spawned further speculation by TV political commentators that the president may be in trouble in the South, as well as Ohio and Florida.

Mr. Barone said the problem with North Carolina and Virginia was that initial returns were too heavily Democratic, so National Election Pool waited for more vote totals.

Ms. Levin said the networks called 29 states at closing, 16 for Mr. Bush and 13 for Mr. Kerry.

The same trend developed in 2000. Voter News Service left Georgia uncalled for 43 minutes and North Carolina for 30, though Mr. Bush carried each state by 13 points. Mr. Gore won Delaware by 13 points and CNN waited only three minutes.

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