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Exit polls aren't an exact science, but almost so for Dan Jones

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 3 2010 6:38 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Pollster Dan Jones was all smiles on post-election day Wednesday.

Not only were his election night exit poll predictions correct, they were nearly an exact match to the actual percentages when all the actual ballots were counted.

Dan Jones and Associates has been conducting election night exit polls for the Deseret News and KSL-TV for years. Tuesday was no exception. Precisely at 8 p.m., when the Utah polling places had closed, he was on the KSL-TV election set with anchor Bruce Lindsay to announce his projections.

"There's a tad amount of stress", Jones says with laughter. "You really worry about predicting the wrong one, and get hopes up — and that's happened."

But rarely.

Jones' staff fanned out and conducted exit poll interviews in 20 of Utah's 29 counties on Tuesday. Workers wait outside of a polling place, and survey voters after they have cast their ballots. "We did four waves. We start at 7 and went till 9 a.m. Then we interviewed from 11 until 2. Then we interviewed from 4 until 6."

The data from those interviews is what he uses to make his predictions on TV.

Between 6 p.m. until the polls close at 8, there's a final round of exit interviews. The last round helps Jones predict races that are close, such as in the 2nd Congressional District. Jones says the race between incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson and Republican challenger Morgan Philpot was too close to call at 8 p.m. because many Democrats waited until the end of the day to go to the polls.

There was a new dynamic to this year's exit polling: early voting; that is, people who voted prior to Election Day.

"This is the first election we've done that," he said.

And the number of early voters was significant. Nearly 25 percent of all ballots cast in the election were early votes. As a result, Jones was able to do early exit polling, which gave him a good idea of how election night would play out.

"You can tell who the winners are, but you can't tell what the spread will be."

Hard numbers are one thing in exit polling, but there are many other factors that Jones uses in his calculations. Demographic information, such as a voter's party affiliation, ideology (conservative or liberal), age, religion. It all has a place in the world of a political pollster.

Jones also recognizes that election night predictions do create a buzz. "People like to tune in at 8 p.m. to see what the predictions are."

He adds that it gives them something to talk about while they wait for the actual votes counts to come in. And some people don't want to wait until the wee hours to find out who won.

While not an exact science, exit polling is something Dan Jones has gotten very good at over the years.

Tuesday night was proof.

"I have to be honest, that's as accurate as you're gonna be," he said. "But some of it's luck."

e-mail: kmccord@desnews.com

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