TERENCE SMITH: Behind the scenes during Tuesday's election a national media consortium was feeding the television networks and other news organizations exit poll information that showed Senator Kerry leading President Bush. By mid-afternoon, the preliminary numbers had leaked onto several widely read Internet sites. This, in turn, sent the stock market down sharply in the last hour of trading.
As late as 9:15 p.m. Eastern time, the National Election Pool, a consortium of networks and other news organizations, still had Senator Kerry leading President Bush 51 percent to 48 percent, almost exactly opposite the final outcome. The exit poll numbers were corrected later, but some news organizations operated most of the day on an expectation of a Kerry victory.
So, what went wrong? To help us answer that, I'm joined by Warren Mitofsky, CO-director of the National Election Pool and founder of Mitofsky International, a survey research company.
Warren Mitofsky, welcome. Can you tell us briefly how you conduct exit polls and what you can learn from them?
WARREN MITOFSKY: Well, Terry, an exit poll starts with a sample of precincts in a state, and then, at each of those sample precincts, we have an interviewer that interviews every third or every fifth voter as that voter exits the building where they've just voted. That's done on a questionnaire, which is then folded up and put in a ballot box.
TERENCE SMITH: And you did this very widely, as I understand it, in many, many precincts, interviewing altogether how many people?
WARREN MITOFSKY: Well, we interviewed almost 150,000 people nationwide on Election Day. We interviewed in every state but Oregon, since they don't have any people at the polling places, and we also interviewed a national sample of polling places.
TERENCE SMITH: Why did the early numbers show Senator Kerry ahead?
WARREN MITOFSKY: Well, Kerry was ahead in a number of the -- in a number of the states by margins that looked unreasonable to us. And we suspect that the reason, the main reason, was that the Kerry voters were more anxious to participate in our exit polls than the Bush voters. That wasn't the case in every state. We had a few states that overstated the Republican margin. But for the most part, it was Democratic overstatement for the reason I just gave you.
TERENCE SMITH: So you're saying that some Bush voters would come out of the polling places and simply decline to participate; if so, why?
WARREN MITOFSKY: Well, in an exit poll, everybody doesn't agree to be interviewed. It's voluntary, and the people refuse usually at about the same rate, regardless of who they support. When you have a very energized electorate, which contributed to the big turnout, sometimes the supporters of one candidate refuse at a greater rate than the supporters of the other candidate.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, if you thought those numbers were suspiciously high for Senator Kerry, couldn't you correct the sample, as you say in your business?
WARREN MITOFSKY: Well, we recognized the overstatement in the exit polls in mid-afternoon, and we told the members of NEP about the suspicions we had, which states to ignore. The correction, in this case, is to wait for the vote returns in those same sample precincts and use that for projections. There were no mistakes in the projections. We were very cautious with them, and none were wrong, even though the exit polls did overstate Kerry in a number of states.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now, this is supposed to be not-for-broadcast information as it's passed along to the organizations, but in fact, it affects their coverage and influences their thinking as they work on the coverage, and obviously someone leaked it.
Who? Who leaked it? How did it get out so widely on the Internet that, in effect, by mid-afternoon, it was public information?
WARREN MITOFSKY: The information is available to all the NEP members. That's five television networks and the Associated Press. It's also available to all the subscribers, which includes major newspapers and local television stations. Any number of people had access.
The reason we have this information at midday is so we can go over it, find any problems with the way we're displaying it, laying it out, any problems that might confuse us when the polls close.
WARREN MITOFSKY: And the fact that it leaks just makes this all the more difficult.
We would like to button up these leaks, but as you know in the news business or any other business, very difficult to control leaks. I think we're going to see more control on the distribution of this material early in the day in future elections.
TERENCE SMITH: Given the fact of the Internet world, given the fact that it gets out on these Web sites and enough people read it that even the stock market reacted to it, is it possible in this atmosphere to conduct and analyze exit polls in real time and make the adjustments you have to make?
WARREN MITOFSKY: Oh, absolutely. All we have to do is to keep the information to ourselves until later in the day and not share it with the people that paid for it, whether they're subscribers or members. We can do this in private, and I don't think they need the information all day long. I think a few hours to get ready for their news activities is more than enough.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet you did warn them, some of them. You said you warned the members of the consortium but not the subscribers to it. So this information stayed out there and sort of informed the atmosphere, energized the campaigns one way or the other, for quite a few hours, into the evening, really.
WARREN MITOFSKY: Well, I think we made a serious mistake not informing our subscribers. That's my fault, and I should have done that along with the members, but there's no way to inform the leakers and the leakees. I don't know how to go about doing that.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Warren Mitofsky, thank you very much.