Exit Polling: What Do the TV Networks Already Know?

David Mattingly CNN - H 2012

Some election data will be released at 5 p.m. EST, but a select group already has a sense of which way the nation is swinging.

Nate Silver, eat your heart out.

As the nation eagerly awaits the first indications of who might win the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a select group of representatives from the big TV networks has been sequestered in a special "quarantine room," poring over exit poll data.

According to Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, reps from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and the AP have been gathered there since 11 a.m. -- cut off from cell phone and Internet service. That's to prevent a repeat of the 2004 presidential election, when exit data leaked to websites like Drudge Report with the polling later ridiculed as not being terribly accurate.

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By 5 p.m. EST, some restrictions on the data reportedly will be lifted. But don't expect to see which candidate is winning Ohio; rather, the TV networks likely will begin reporting the demographic makeup of 2012 election voters and what issues drove the nation's votes.

Perhaps more than ever, the exit polling will ignite cries of caution from the political campaigns even as social media engages in a collective tea-leaf reading in the early evening hours.

Thanks to budget cuts, the consortium of TV networks and AP charged with exit polling will be scaling back in 19 non-battleground states this year and also reducing in-person exit-poll interviews nationwide. At the same time, as described by the AP's David Bauder two weeks ago, the exit polling consortium will increase the number of people interviewed to a total of 25,000 voters this year, up from 18,000 in 2008.

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The difference comes from a greater emphasis on telephone interviews, which the consortium says it will be boosting in the interest of capturing the impact of early voting. More than 30 million people around the nation voted before Tuesday, including some 1.6 million people in Ohio and 4.3 million in Florida. In states like Colorado, more than three-quarters of the voting population is estimated to have cast votes before Election Day.

Polling-by-telephone might be reflective of these early voting trends. Unfortunately, they also could be subject to the sorts of "statistical bias" that comes from voters who won't respond to questions or can't be reached.

The real results start coming in at 6 p.m. in Indiana and Kentucky, which aren't expected to be close but might have districts within the states that are indicative of election trends to follow. At 7 p.m., polling closes in more states on the East Coast, including the important battleground of Virginia.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner