What’s Missing from Democratic Exit Polls?


What are exit polls for? When responsibly analyzed, final exit poll results-not the early, leaked numbers that so often misrepresent outcomes-are most helpful in determining not who won an election, but what types of voters supported which candidates.

Exit polls have identified Hillary Clinton's strong showing among women, highly educated voters' affinity for Barack Obama, and confirmed evangelicals' affection for Mike Huckabee. They've also shed light on peculiarities such as John McCain's support among pro-choice Republicans, even in Florida, when the nominally pro-choice Rudy Giuliani was still in the race. Over 40 percent of Sunshine State GOP voters believe abortion should be legal, and McCain won more of their votes than any other candidate in the race. Those folks need a political reality check; McCain's opposition to Roe v. Wade is increasingly vociferous.

But what's usually ignored is that Democratic and Republican exit polls are quite different. Only Republican exit polls ask voters if they identify as "evangelical," for example, obscuring the fact that up to one-third of self-described evangelical Christians actually vote Democratic, regardless of the party's support for abortion rights and LGBT civil rights. And while Republican exit polls typically ask several questions about abortion, Democratic exit polls don't quiz voters about abortion at all.

Yep, you heard that right. The domestic "culture war" issue most identified as a "wedge" is totally absent from Democratic exit polling.

That's because the National Election Pool-the exit polling collective made up of the Associated Press, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox-isn't concerned with polling issue preferences when major candidates actually agree with one another. Indeed, Clinton and Obama have virtually indistinguishable platforms on reproductive health, despite Clinton's longer record advocating on the issue, and all the hang-wringing over Obama's "present" votes on abortion during his time in the Illinois State Senate.

For reproductive health advocates and pro-choice voters, that's a good thing. Both Democratic candidates have pledged to appoint pro-Roe justices to the Supreme Court, overturn the Hyde Amendment (which prevents Medicaid from paying for abortions for low-income women), protect access to contraception, and promote comprehensive sexuality education in public schools. And both Clinton and Obama support abortion and contraception rights alongside a broader parenting agenda, in which the federal government would support mothers and fathers with broadened family and medical leave rights, affordable child care, and better schools.

In other words, Clinton and Obama get it.

So some reproductive health advocates might argue that leaving abortion out of Democratic exit polls is helpful to the cause, since it clamps down on potentially divisive media coverage of abortion around election time. But in actuality, by including questions about abortion on Republican exit polls, but not Democratic ones, pollsters have guaranteed that the media pays extra attention to how conservative, anti-choice voters feel about the issue, while largely overlooking the majority of Americans' support for broad access to abortion and contraception.

In the wake of this past weekend's primary in Louisiana, for example (the only weekend primary to be exit polled), the anti-choice website LifeNews was able to report that three-quarters of Louisiana Republicans oppose abortion rights. And as Huckabee carried Louisiana and Kansas, the media had the exit poll numbers to back up yet another round of stories about his support among social conservative voters. That kept the preferences of anti-choicers in the headlines.

In the meantime, there were no equivalent exit poll statistics on pro-choice voters. Those numbers, if they existed, would likely show strong support across the Democratic electorate for reproductive rights — after all, in some states, over half of Republicans are pro-choice! Consider this: Although 70 percent of Americans support abortion rights in the case of rape or incest, Mike Huckabee doesn't — and yet it's Huckabee's supporters whose abortion position is covered by the media. And in 2004's general election, well over half of all voters told pollsters abortion should be legal. Yet during the primaries, the partisan discrepancy in exit polling on abortion completely obscures Americans' relative moderation on the issue.

The fact that abortion is a settled issue in the Democratic primary-at least this year-doesn't meant that polling should ignore progressive voters' preferences on the issue. Indeed, exit polls should ask voters not only about abortion, but about some of the other reproductive health issues that will starkly split the candidates during the general election, such as sex-ed and access to birth control. That would ensure that the public and media have a realistic view of Americans' support for reproductive rights.

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  • scott-swenson

    Dana: Great piece and welcome to the RH Reality Check team! Another issue that 2008 is teaching, along these same lines, is that the nation is ready for an overhaul to the electoral system. While Huckabee is doing well in states with large evangelical bases of support, and picking up on the anti-McCain protest vote, he is doing so based on his ability to surprise people in Iowa. Super Tuesday proved that our democracy is ready for regional primaries and that the process should not be front-loaded — that we all benefit when more states from more parts of the country have a real voice in the nominating process. If the media would not wedge the issues they discuss in exit polls as you suggest, and 3-5 states clustered together for a series of rolling primaries, we would have candidates that are forced to prove they can build coalitions and work with all kinds of people … you know, all the kinds that actually make up America, not just special interests. This is important to focus on now, because the candidates finishing second in both parties often extract changes to the nominating process as they negotiate their way off stage; case in point, proportional representation for the Democrats was negotiated in 1988. It is serving to make the process more representative, as was intended, putting more power in the hands of voters where it belongs.


    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor