A handful of Web sites struck a defiant tone today, publishing what they claimed was exit-poll data despite embargoes requiring the information not be disseminated until polls had closed.
But while all the Web publishers cited sources with access to the embargoed exit polls, the posted results did not always agree, suggesting the data was not always flowing from the same sources.
“We tried to track Matt Drudge, but when his first batch came up, all our sources discounted the information as wrong,” says Taegan Goddard, co-publisher of politicalinsider.com. “After that, we couldn’t get on his site.”
Drudge Posts Early
In fact, by late afternoon, many people reported problems logging onto the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com), a Web page made famous for its coverage of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Today, Drudge published results as early as 2:30 p.m. ET that, he claimed, reflected exit poll numbers.
The results, which included projections of who was leading in the presidential race, numbers for the presidential race in California and for the U.S. Senate seat in New York, were announced more than eight hours before polls were scheduled to close on the West Coast. Drudge labeled the presidential results as “developing” and cited anonymous sources.
A dispatch on Inside.com said that Freerepublic.com and Lucianne Goldberg’s site, lucianne.com, would ease the burden on Drudge’s server by reprinting information from his site on their pages. By evening Goldberg’s site began posting Drudge’s reports.
Most news organizations refrain from posting exit poll information — based on interviews with voters as they leave the voting booths — until after polls in that state have closed, fearing the information could influence those who have not yet voted.
PoliticalInsider.com didn’t post exit-poll results, but, instead sent the information by e-mail to its more than 50,000 subscribers. Inside.com, a site covering entertainment and media, posted reports this afternoon of what they claimed were exit-poll results of the presidential race in more than 10 states.
“We’d given some thought to doing this earlier, but we didn’t make the decision until today,” says Michael Hirschorn, editor-in-chief of Inside.com. “In fact, we thought releasing the numbers would spur voters going to the polls.”
The Numbers’ Origin
Much of the exit-poll information flows from a body called the Voter News Service, or VNS, which is a consortium of TV networks (including ABCNEWS), cable news and The Associated Press.
None of the Web sites that posted what they claimed were exit-poll results today subscribe to the service. They argue that since they don’t receive the information directly from VNS, but through anonymous sources, they are not obliged to follow the consortium’s embargo policies.
That attitude has VNS rule-makers concerned.
“We are obviously very concerned about possible leaks and we will review each situation and take the appropriate and necessary actions to protect our rights,” says Lee C. Shapiro, a spokeswoman for VNS.
During the Republican primaries this fall, Slate.com and National Review Online published exit-poll results several hours before polls closed. Both sites decided against publishing exit-poll results today after VNS threatened them with legal action in the fall.
Jack Shafer, a columnist with Slate.com, claims his Web site didn’t publish exit-poll results during the New Hampshire, North Carolina and Michigan primaries in order to reveal information but rather, he says, as an act of protest.
“We did it to expose the hypocrisy of the networks who pretend in their coverage they don’t know prior to 7 p.m. who the exit polls will make the winner,” says Shafer. “We were attempting to lance the hypocrisy and I think we succeeded in doing that.”
A News Tool
Exit polls are regarded as a fairly reliable reflection of voting results. As they leave voting booths, voters are asked who they have voted for and why. News organizations use the results to prepare their election broadcasts and reports.
The data can provide information not only on who is winning a given state, but also any demographic trends such as how a given age group, gender or ethnic group is voting.
In the mid-1980s, when Congress expressed concern that early projections by news organizations could affect voting by dissuading late voters from going to the polls, the news groups agreed to withhold poll results of the election horse races until the “vast majority” of polls closed. Recent election years have shown that agreement has been flexible.
ABCNEWS, for example, projects race outcomes in individual states when carefully scrutinized exit polls have determined a clear winner. ABCNEWS.com follows the same principles.
Mark Halperin, political director for ABCNEWS, says sometimes this means a presidential winner may be declared before every state’s polls have closed. In 1996, for example, networks called the race for Bill Clinton at 9 p.m. ET, a full two hours before the polls closed in California.
While the move raised the ire of some out West, the alternative, Halperin says, is to know the outcome and not tell the country.
Hirschorn of Inside.com takes that argument further. He claims there’s no need to ever withhold exit-poll information.
“It appears that virtually every journalist in America knows this information and we think it’s absurd that others don’t have access to it,” he says.
Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online, adds that gathering early exit-poll information is so easy that if Web sites don’t publish early results, it’s definitely due to restraint — not because they don’t have the information.
“There are dozens of people we know who work for big name mainstream media outlets,” he says. “These exit poll results are the worst-kept secrets in the political, industrial, media complex.”
While National Review Online and Slate have abided by their promise not to publish early exit-poll results, they both laud Drudge and others for breaking the rules.
“I would be shocked if Drudge didn’t publish results,” says Goldberg. “As someone who loves to go after the big guy, this is the perfect honey pot for him.”