News organizations promised Wednesday to look into why their Election Day exit polls showed an initial surge for John Kerry (search), but also blamed bloggers for spreading news that gave a misleading view of the presidential race.
The exit poll data was delivered at several points Tuesday to ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX News Channel and The Associated Press by the National Election Pool (search), a company formed in the wake of the networks' blown calls on election night 2000.
The first wave showed Kerry with a lead of three percentage points in Florida and four points in Ohio — both battleground states won by President Bush when the votes were actually counted, giving the president his margin of victory.
"Once one part of it is in question and is wrong, it kind of puts the whole thing in question," said Marty Ryan, FOX News Channel's executive producer for political coverage. "It was disappointing. ... During the primary season, it worked very well for us, we were happy with it. But that was not good last night."
Other network representatives said their confidence in NEP remained unshaken.
The Florida and Ohio exit poll results, along with those in other states were Kerry was strong, was quickly disseminated on Web sites such as Slate, the Drudge Report, Wonkette.com, Atrios.blogspot.com and Command Post.
Some of these sites cautioned readers not to make too much of the information. The Command Post delivered the news under the headline "Grain of Salt." Drudge removed the numbers almost as quickly as they were posted. And Slate warned: "these early exit poll numbers do not divine the name of the winner."
"I didn't have any real compunction about putting it up there," said Alan Nelson, co-manager of The Command Post. "I didn't struggle with the decision, because I knew it was going to become a global news item within about 30 seconds.
"Our approach is: We post, you decide," Nelson said.
But the people who read these numbers — among them, thousands of ordinary Americans with an intense interest in the election — put too much faith into them and leaped to conclusions, said Bill Schneider, CNN's polling expert.
"I think people believed them, and it's particularly the case with Internet bloggers," said Kathy Frankovic, CBS News' polling director. "That's unfortunate because it sets up expectations that may or may not be met. I think it's a good exercise because it reminded people that early exit polls can be unreliable."
Bloggers picked out different numbers to use for their purposes, said Joseph Lenski, who ran the poll with partner Warren Mitofsky for the NEP. As the day wore on, later waves of exit polling showed the race tightening.
"Doing an early poll is like reporting the results of the game at halftime," Lenski said. "You only have about a third of the information. No other survey research is held to that level of accuracy."
The NEP had enough concerns that its early exit polls were skewing too heavily toward Kerry that it held a conference call with news organizations mid-afternoon urging caution in how that information was used. Early polls in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Connecticut were then showing a heavier Kerry vote than anticipated.
Pollsters anticipate a postmortem to find out why that happened. Some possibilities: Democrats were more eager to speak to pollsters than Republicans, or Kerry supporters tended to go to the polls earlier in the day than Bush voters.
"The exit poll is one of several tools that AP uses to call races," said Kathleen Carroll, the news agency's senior vice president and executive editor. "After every election, we look back at how all our tools worked. We'll be doing that in the next few days with our election experts and our colleagues at the National Election Pool, and expect to be able to address any concerns in that process."
NEP members note that the organizations that commissioned the poll did not use the information to mislead the public.
None of it was used to wrongly call a state, due to extra care after the disastrous election night of four years ago when networks twiced prematurely declared Bush the winner in Florida.
For particularly close states, NBC relied on actual vote counts, said Bill Wheatley, NBC News vice president.
Still, some correspondents subtly telegraphed the polls to viewers. On the evening news, NBC's David Gregory said Bush "appeared subdued," while ABC's Terry Moran noted the president had expressed a "rare sense of doubt."
FOX News Channel correspondents bluntly addressed the polls early on election night, at about the time Bush campaign officials were alerting reporters that their analysis of the actual vote count showed they were doing better than the exit polls indicated.
"The view in Boston is that if the exit polls are right, it's going to be very difficult for George Bush to win tonight," FOX News analyst Susan Estrich said.
In the end, those polls — or the reading of them — proved to be incorrect.