Exit Polling: Not Just Numbers


A version of this story ran in the November 2012 issue.

A Texas reporter, someone who once embraced top members of the Dubya gang, once told me this about the statehouse press corps: “Only 1,000 people ever read our stories.”

His cynical thinking was that today’s political-media rat pack in Austin writes pieces that appeal only to the 1,000 lobbyists, operatives and opposition researchers snaking in and out of the high-dollar office buildings along Congress Avenue. There is precious little critical thinking, deconstruction, explanation—and nary a real human face on these stories.

The two best daily political explainers in the history of Texas—the late Molly Ivins and the late Sam Attlesey—are reaching for beer and cigarettes in their populist newsroom in the sky. Those two reader-friendly reporters actually got out of that incestuous Austin circle and roamed Texas, always aiming to explain what the hell national and local politics really meant—and the impact on ordinary Texans.

When I slaved at a big Texas daily, I once begged my editor to let me report on how Dubya’s so-called welfare reform policies were going to hurt people all across the state, and I counted myself lucky to bang out one story from South Texas that involved interviewing a desperately poor family living in an abandoned yellow school bus hidden in high weeds. I was never allowed to roam again.

Today, the state’s print and online dailies drown readers in a pool of data bits and tweets stripped of nuanced explanatory journalism and the voices of real people.

Here’s one recent example of the kind of news item that begs for extrapolation and interpretation—and a human face. It’s a political move that needs to be analyzed, by the media, for its impact on the people of Texas. Instead, the item garnered the thinnest mention in the Texas press.

The Washington Post broke the story that Texas is one of 19 states being booted out of the national collection of statewide election polls orchestrated by the National Election Pool—a consortium of major news organizations that has stewarded exit polls for the last decade. The Houston Chronicle did a small summation: “The elimination of Texas means that voters in the Lone Star State will not be polled about their choice for president or the U.S. Senate.”

Exit polls are always controversial, and sometimes they wind up breaking some of journalism’s cardinal rules (“cover the news, don’t make news”), especially when it seems that the polls begin to sway late voters. They are also infamously unreliable. Plenty of experts say that exit pollsters delivered vastly inflated figures for the number of Hispanics in Texas (and the nation) who voted George W. Bush into the presidency.

Still, exit polls are important not just to need-for-speed news jockeys in a rush to announce winners and losers on the evening news or the online front page. If conducted with cultural sensitivity, they can open a window into the soul of Texas’ rapidly changing minority demographic.

Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm run by professors from Stanford and the University of Washington, suggests that the mainstream media often does a poor job of polling Latinos and interpreting the results. If done right, exit polls can return more than numbers—they can tell you about people’s hopes, dreams and fears.

Now Texas has been sliced from the NEP consortium, in what is being framed as a cost-cutting move. Props are due to the Houston Chronicle for at least trying to understand the bigger implications, in a blog post that reads: “The omission also will prevent political scientists from comparing changes in the Texas voters’ views of social and economic issues over the past four years.”

If heavy hitters in the Texas media spend money to fill the gap created by Texas’ polling omission, it will be a minor miracle.

And even if they do, it would be a major miracle if they really put in the time to interpret—and put a human face on—that material. Something, anything, to get out of the insider ballpark.