Behind the Numbers: The 2016 National Election Exit Poll

By Gage - 2012 Electoral College map, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

By Gage – 2016 Electoral College map, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

On November 8, 2016, Edison Research engaged in the largest single-day research project in the world: Exit Polling the nation on behalf of the National Election Pool (NEP). A staff of over 3,000 exit poll interviewers, precinct vote return reporters, call center workers, and analysts all across the country helped us provide the sole record of who voted, and why. We collected, processed, and analyzed over 100,000 interviews in a 17-hour period to not only create that record, but also to provide the NEP with the guidance to make the right projections for their viewers and readers.

Whether you saw our name or not, over 71 million Americans watched the fruits of our labor on ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NBC–and millions more have seen visualizations of our data in newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USAToday. Indeed, the entire world was watching: Edison’s exit poll clients also included major international news networks.

This election was extraordinary in both the level of interest and the level of scrutiny on the changing nature of the pre-election polls. Many pre-election forecasts showed a high probability of a Clinton win, only to reverse those projections as the night went on. Because of the exit polls, our clients knew something was up – something possibly very significant – the moment they looked at their screens, and were able to plan their coverage accordingly.

Any kind of survey research involves making estimates of a population–the exit polls are no different–and reconciling those estimates with historical data, statistical models, and of course the “received wisdom” of the professional pollster. Throughout the day, we were able to analyze millions of fields of data in real time to spot potential “surprises” and provide insights to our network clients that allowed them to make accurate projections all night long. For instance, we were able to recognize early in the day that many states that were not presumed to be close would in fact be nail-biters until the end.

While the Presidential Election naturally received the most attention, Edison’s exit polls covered a total of 103 races–everthing from hotly contested Senate races, to consequential gubernatorial battles, to the legalization of marijuana in several states. Today you can see the results of our work all over the Internet: where there is credible data on who voted for these races, how they voted, and why, it came from Edison.

The humble profession of “pollster” has undergone a lot of criticism over the past several weeks. Some pundits argue that polls are no longer effective. We at Edison are proud of the fact that our work covered scores of races and initiatives on Election Day, and our clients did not make one mistake, issue one retraction, or make one incorrect projection. Our exit polls have proven once again to be the single most reliable source of information on who voted and why those voters made their decisions.

In fact, since we began serving the NEP in this role in 2003, Edison and its network clients have never made an incorrect projection based upon exit poll data. We are very proud of this, and of our role in our great democratic process.

Links to our work:

ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/election-2016-national-exit-poll-results-analysis/story?id=43368675

CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-exit-polls-how-donald-trump-won-the-us-presidency/

CNN: http://www.cnn.com/election/results/exit-polls

NBC: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-election-day/election-polls-nbc-news-analysis-2016-votes-voters-n680466

FOX News: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/elections/2016/exit-polls

New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.html

Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/11/10/exit-polling-popular-vote-have-democrats-challenging-the-trump-mandate/

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