WASHINGTON – Once again, exit polls (search) received a black eye in the presidential election.
By the time most of the polls closed in precincts across the country Tuesday night, real numbers began to suggest that the early estimations that had been so upbeat for Sen. John Kerry were over-inflated — so much so, that FOX News Channel decided to quit using the exit poll results Tuesday evening, calling them inaccurate and unreliable.
FOX News had been using exit poll numbers crunched by Edison Media Research (search) in New Jersey and Mitofsky International (search) of New York, which had been contracted by the six news organizations that had formed the National Election Pool — besides the FOX News Channel, they were ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and the Associated Press.
The new pollsters had replaced the Voter News Service (search), a consortium of media outlets that did its own exit polling and vote counting in 2000, and was largely blamed for misjudging the 2000 election.
Long before the polls closed, Tuesday's exit polling, which included presidential preferences as well as gauges about the importance of issues to voters, had been widely circulated via the Internet along with independent voting predictions. All suggested unusually strong numbers for Kerry.
Early numbers looked so positive for Kerry that FOX News analyst Jim Pinkerton, at 3:30 p.m. EST, said, "I think it looks good for angry Democrats."
Television anchors and pundits, who are expected not to reveal trends, began reporting the "buzz" or the "mood" of the campaigns, suggesting they too had seen the numbers and were reacting accordingly.
NBC News' David Gregory said Bush "appeared subdued," while ABC News' Terry Moran noted the president had expressed a "rare sense of doubt."
The political Web logs or "blogosphere," posted the numbers throughout the day, and depending on which side of the aisle bloggers aligned themselves, either embraced or were repulsed by what they saw during the day.
"Clearly exit polls are not meaningless: I think they have something to do with the Bushies' glumness," wrote "Alexander" on the Democratic-leaning Dailykos.com.
Later on FOX News, analysts talked openly about how some actual results contradicted exit polls numbers.
"Either the exit polls are completely wrong or George Bush loses," FOX News analyst Susan Estrich said.
By midnight, Bush was declared the winner in Florida, though throughout the day the state had been predicted a winner for Kerry. Similar predictions in Ohio were also found to be wrong as the state was put in Bush's column.
"We began noticing there was some very odd things," in the polls, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes told FOX News. "We knew there were some problems from the get-go."
One Republican strategist told FOX News that "in the beginning of the night, we were asking how we could have been so far off.
"I bought a box of Kleenex. But I didn't open them," he said.
Exit polls did elicit some news about voters' moods, which suggested that neither candidate had a clear mandate on the issues. The close nature of the popular vote in the early morning hours Wednesday seemed to indicate that those attitudes may have been more accurately reflected in exit data than presidential preferences.
Exit polls suggested that slightly more voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism than Kerry. A majority said the country was safer from terrorism than four years ago. Those voters overwhelmingly backed Bush.
But among those who said they were very worried about a terrorist strike, Kerry held a slight lead. The majority of voters who said things were going poorly in Iraq heavily favored Kerry.
Kerry was also favored by eight of 10 voters who listed the economy as a top issue.
Half said the country was headed in the right direction, a good sign for the incumbent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report