What Exit Polls & Early Voting Results Really Mean

Photographed by Sage McAvoy.
Exit polling and early voting results can be a tricky, and not always accurate, business. However, they can be useful in discerning trends based on which types of voters went to the polls. This Election Day, many Americans are watching this data closely because it's shaping up to be an unusual election — with a higher projected youth turnout than in previous midterms, for example. Early voting is on the rise this year, and it remains to be seen how much of a difference it will make, but one thing's for sure: Those who vote early know what they want.
According to Pew Research, exit polls date back to the 1970s. Partially because exit polls failed to predict Donald Trump's win over Hillary Clinton in 2016's presidential election, a few news organizations including the Associated Press have teamed up for a new project called VoteCast this year, which will survey 120,000 registered voters and include a random phone and online survey of registered voters, a voter panel, and an opt-in online survey, according to Vox.
Exit polls are more than just about who people voted for; they are also about demographics, opinions, and behaviors — all of which help analysts answer the big "What does it all mean?" types of questions. They're able to tell us which way the winds are blowing on issues such as gun reform, healthcare, and immigration. For example, according to an NBC News poll, women are more likely than men to think President Trump's immigration policies are too tough.
“It’s more than calling a race,” Jay McCann, a Purdue University political science professor and exit polls expert, told Vox. “The big question is what explains an outcome, and exit polls, by virtue of the fact that you’re interviewing individual voters at the site when they’ve just made the decision, that would give you some insights that other kinds of polls conducted further away in time couldn’t really give you.”
And again, exit polls are flawed. “There are a couple of challenges in the current environment,” McCann said. “There may be a systematic tendency for some types of people not to want to participate.”
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