Friday, November 26, 2004

The Battle of the Pollsters

Zogby Vs. Mitofsky

Keith Olbermann

NEW YORK - It was a spectacular irony - a Republican senator using the word “fraud” about the presidential election. More spectacular still, he was visiting his condemnation of apparent election manipulation on the incumbent party. And beyond all that, he and others based their conclusions largely on the incredible disparity between the last exit polls and the vote count itself. Of course, Indiana’s Richard Lugar was talking about the presidential election in the Ukraine. But in so doing, he underscored that once again, the exit polls appear to have fulfilled the time-honored international tradition of the canary in the mine shaft. If only we could have used them in that way here.

“I don't think that exit polls can be used as a barometer for the accuracy of an election itself,” noted pollster John Zogby explained to me on last night’s Countdown, in what we think was his first full-scale television interview since the election. “At least until we find out if there's something broken with this round of election polls… I think that the gentlemen who are responsible for the exit polls should be fully transparent, release their data, discuss their methodology. Let us see what exactly it is that happened, and why it happened.”

It turns out one of those gentlemen doesn’t think anything happened.

In an unsolicited e-mail to Countdown, Warren Mitofsky wrote that he was “struck by the misinformation” in our program. He heads Mitofsky International, which along with Edison Media Research, conducted the election night exit polling for the television networks and the Associated Press. I referred to the variance among the early and late exit polls, and the voting. Insisting “there were no early exit polls” released by his company or Edison, Mr. Mitofsky wrote “the early release came from unauthorized leaks to bloggers who posted misinformation.”

Mitofsky compared those leaks to “the score at half time at a football game” and said the “leakers were reading complex displays intended for trained statisticians. The leakers did not understand what they were reading and the bloggers did not know they were getting misinformation.”

His defense of his work grew more strident. “The presidential exit polls released at poll closing time when they were completed had an average error of 1.9 percentage points. There were no mistaken projections by Edison/Mitofsky or any of the NEP members.” One more thrust: “All the professionals correctly interpreted the numbers.”

While Zogby spoke of a “blue ribbon panel” to investigate both the voting irregularities and the exit polling, Mitofsky asked rhetorically, “Did anyone really think that 51% in an exit poll two hours before voting was finished in the western states gave Kerry a lock on the presidency?”

John Zogby, meanwhile, was more concerned about the short end of another poll this week -- one that indicated that about four in five Americans thought President Bush had been legitimately elected three weeks ago. “But, Keith, 20 percent don’t think the president is legitimate. And worse yet, if you take the other half, those that didn’t vote for him, about half of the other side doesn’t think the president is legitimate. That just hasn’t existed for a long, long time in our system. We need to restore, I think, some semblance of legitimacy and honor to the system.”

Warren Mitofsky seemed to disagree. “The exit polls have been better in the past. They were far from perfect, but nowhere near as bad as your broadcast made them sound.” He never mentioned Zogby in his e-mail, but he did blast others. “Only the unauthorized leakers and bloggers were misled - a fate they richly deserved.”

Mitofsky’s pride in his efforts is understandable. But the so-called ‘early waves’ of exit polling information were disseminated in generalized form to all the networks as darkness fell in the east on November 2nd. They were intended as background, as material that could be used to anticipate patterns and results. Those who characterized them loaded them heavily with caveats and disclaimers, and kept numbers virtually out of their characterizations. But the effect was impossible to misinterpret. Merely in their intended spheres, they helped shape coverage and tone, on-air and off.

And they, along with the voting irregularities so thoroughly chronicled on the net (and still just seeping into the mainstream media), created an atmosphere that Zogby thinks requires broad remedy: “I think it's in the interests of the nation that we study what happened in this election and widen that, let's study what happened with the exit polls, and let's come out with a definitive conclusions by a blue ribbon panel to restore the legitimacy of this election.”

Zogby thinks he knows the steps to take to do that. The first is for those who are raising questions, to keep doing so. “I can reassure them they’re not crazy for asking. It’s not just those who are far out, it is indeed many respectable, responsible people.” The pollster says he’s heard from thousands of them, asking him to get involved in their various causes and investigations, so many he can’t answer them all.

But he used Countdown as his mass e-mail reply. “I’ll take this opportunity right now to say I think that it’s in the interest of healing this country and restoring some unity to this country for us to have a thorough investigation of what happened both to the election and with the exit polls.” Zogby called for the proverbial blue-ribbon commission into the voting irregularities, and the full release of the exit polling data.

And he encouraged the recounts, even when, as they have in the first three of the nine precincts in New Hampshire, they have varied by just fifteen votes from the original count. The second tally in Ohio, Zogby says, “certainly is useful, but I don't think its enough…I called this election for months the Armageddon election, and in that context, one of the things that we discovered throughout our polling was the fact that there were going to be significant numbers, on both sides who were not going to accept the legitimacy of the other guy winning, especially if it was close election.”

Do they have reason? With three weeks’ reflection, he’s not convinced there was an altered vote - accidental or otherwise - at least not on “a grand scale.” But Zogby says the “system is not geared for a close election like this” and if “many millions of people… don’t think that their vote was counted accurately,” the results are almost as bad as if an election was rigged, or decided by static charges in a thousand computers.

Zogby says he’s at peace with his own Election Night forecast - made not with the Mitofsky or Edison exit polling, but with his own polls. He saw Florida and Ohio both “trending” towards Kerry, and producing a triple-digit victory for the Democrat. Within the pollster’s margin of error, he made no mistakes. But he may not be as thoroughly sanguine as he suggests. Off-air, in the preparatory interview standard for all guests, his November 2 forecast was mentioned.

“Thanks,” he said, “for reminding me.”

Which reminds me that it was mildly encouraging to see some focus given to this entire topic Tuesday night by my old CNN cohort Aaron Brown. A carefully-worded segment included a laundry list of the problems we’ve been reporting on Countdown for the last three weeks, and compared them to “the kind of dumb mistake that ruined the Hubbell telescope.” Brown referenced the UC Berkeley study on the prospect of 130,000 phantom votes in Florida (though he didn’t mention its conclusion that all of them went to President Bush), and even had about fifteen seconds of Blackbox’s Bev Harris and her slog through the computer printout records in Florida.

Such as they are.

Thoughts? Email me at

Originally published November 24, 2004