Magazine article Insight on the News

Exit Polls Make Short Shrift of Jewish Voters

Magazine article Insight on the News

Exit Polls Make Short Shrift of Jewish Voters

Article excerpt

By the logic of demographics, Jews should be Republicans, yet when it comes to voting, almost everyone assumes that American Jews are liberal Democrats.

That Jews vote monolithically for Democrats has been the conventional wisdom for years and has been supported by exit polling. However, the exit-polling numbers on which conventional wisdom rests are methodologically flawed and have grossly underestimated the real Jewish vote. A closer look at the exit-polling process yields a far different conclusion from those most often cited by the media and other electoral experts.

While highly effective for television ratings and exciting for political junkies, when used to analyze certain voting groups, exit polling presents an inaccurate picture of the electorate. As a result, exit polling has produced a series of stereotypes that has misled politicians and marginalized certain voting groups.

Exit polling is used so widely because it is capable of accurately predicting state electoral results not only before a final tally is available, but also before the polls themselves have closed. Nearly one in two congressional districts across the country is surveyed on Election Day to provide the television networks with early knowledge of which candidates are winning. Without this technology, election-night coverage would consist of continuous punditry without any election insight. Since most polls close after the networks have begun their election-night coverage, not having exit polling would make for a very unsatisfying election night. Repeats of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" error would abound.

For women, voters aged 65 and older and those who live in the South, the number of interviews conducted and the methodology of interviewing used in exit polling produces reasonably accurate results. However, this is not the case for Jewish Americans.

We're led to believe by the Democrats and the media that, despite the nationwide Republican trend in 1994 - in which majorities of both white men and women voted for Republicans - 80 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Democrats, according to exit polling. With numbers like this, it can be easy for Republicans to write off the Jewish vote, which is precisely the problem. Exit polling is leading to questions about why either party should care about courting Jewish voters if they always vote for Democrats.

For as long as polling has existed, there has been a gap between how one votes and how one says one has voted. Polling has not been able to gauge accurately extremist candidates such as David Duke or unorthodox candidates such as Ross Perot, because people answered what they felt was acceptable in society when asked survey questions. Then, when the curtain was drawn around the voting booth, they voted for what they believed and not what they said. If polling and voting were synonymous, we would not need elections.

This disconnect, present in telephone polling, is even greater with exit polling. While telephone surveys are relatively anonymous - the interviewer usually is thousands of miles away - the exit pollster is face-to-face with the respondent. The pressure to tell an interviewer what one perceives is the correct response is great.

The most fundamental problem with exit polling is with the methodology. It extrapolates a national trend based upon select congressional voting data. While one's congressional vote may be an accurate predictor of one's party affiliation and a legitimate means by which to determine how the country has voted, it fails to represent accurately certain voting groups that sharply split their ballots between local and statewide races. It also makes an assumption that there is a competitive contest between two candidates, which is not always the case.

In surveying nearly half the congressional districts in the country, certain districts are chosen while others, obviously, are disregarded. The selection process is geared to mirror the nation's voting demographics. …

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