Monday, January 24, 2011

how to do an exit-poll

There are several ways to do an exit poll, but they all come down to asking people what they voted, right after they went into the voting booth. The first succesfull modern exit poll was conducted in 1967 to predict the governor's election of Kentucky.

One of the difficulties in exit polling, is that some people might not want to say whom they vote for, especially if this person is politically controversial. This might be one of the reasons why Geert Wilders, and the PVV in general always underperform in Dutch exit polls. The second difficulty is selecting a number of polling stations. Good exit polls do this either randomly, or (even better) choose stratified sampling. Stratified sampling is particularly important when voting behavior has a strong regional component. For example, a random selection of polling stations in the Netherlands, might exclude by chance any localities in the 'bible belt' , where people often vote for the SGP leading to a under-represntation of voters for the SGP. Stratifying on past voting behavior in polling stations can increases statistical power, making sure we need fewer polling stations to achieve the same margin of error.

In the past, exit polls were conducted like this. Slowly, market research firms have first switched to telephone surveys, and later Internet surveys to do their exit poll. Both TNS NIPO and peil.nl relied on their panel to predict the election results. This once again shows how people who voluntarily join access panels can not be used to produce good statistics for the general population.
Wisely, the Dutch news stations (ANP, NOS, RTL) chose to do a proper, old-school exit poll in 2010. See this post for details (in Dutch).

So what, one might ask? Why worry about the crappy polls? We can just ignore them, and then focus on the polls that do a good job? Alas, people are heavily influenced by polls in the media in the period leading up to elections. More on this, and strategic voting, next time