So the meme is supposedly set. Final pre-election expectations are that the popular vote in the 2012 presidential contest will come in roughly deadlocked. Rasmussen and Gallup show Republican nominee Mitt Romney up by one point. Other polls show either a tie or slight lead for incumbent Democrat Barack Obama.
Set against this expectation, don't be surprised if someone in the press, perhaps even at one of the big networks, gets overexcited and projects Barack Obama the winner based on Tuesday's early exit polls without realizing that their scope and design have changed from previous presidential elections in two fundamental ways.
In early October, in a development which received far less notice than it should have, the organizations who conduct exit polling disclosed that they will no longer attempt to blanket the country, and will devote more effort to early voters:
Networks, AP cancel exit polls in 19 states
Breaking from two decades of tradition, this year’s election exit poll is set to include surveys of voters in 31 states, not all 50 as it has for the past five presidential elections, according to multiple people involved in the planning.
Dan Merkle, director of elections for ABC News, and a member of the consortium that runs the exit poll, confirmed the shift Thursday. The aim, he said, “is to still deliver a quality product in the most important states,” in the face of mounting survey costs.
The decision by the National Election Pool — a joint venture of the major television networks and The Associated Press — is sure to cause some pain to election watchers across the country.
Voters in the excluded states will still be interviewed as part of a national exit poll, but state-level estimates of the partisan, age or racial makeups of electorates won’t be available as they have been since 1992. The lack of data may hamper election night analyses in some states, and it will almost certainly limit post-election research for years to come.
A growing number of voters casting early ballots has added to the complexity of carrying out surveys in 50 states, the District of Columbia and nationally. In more and more states it has become crucial to supplement in-person precinct polling with relatively costly telephone interviews in order to achieve representative samples.
... This year, exit pollsters are set to carry out phone polls in 15 states, about half of all states covered, and increase the sample sizes of those polls by 32 percent, according to Merkle. Moreover, the continued rise in the number of voters using cellphones also bumps up the price of phone surveys, another challenge motivating the changes for 2012.
Here is a list of the states that will be excluded from coverage: Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
The matter of which states were dropped and selected for continued inclusion is interesting, to say the least, especially when one looks at their 2008 presidential election status and the number of 2012 electoral votes involved:
Imagine that. The exit pollsters have excluded only four tiny 2008 Obama-favoring enclaves (three states and DC) with less than 4 million people and only 14 electoral votes, while casting aside 16 McCain-supporting states with about 24% of the nation's population and 149 electoral votes, well over half of the 270 needed for victory. How convenient.
Why exclude deep-red Texas but not deep-blue, heavily populated, and likely non-competitive California, Illinois, or New York?
Despite what ABC's Merkel has said about the continued existence of a true "national exit poll," it seems pretty likely that news organizations will be receiving "overall" demographic-driven exit polling results from the 31 included states similar in appearance to ones presented in previous years which included the entire country. They will clearly show Obama leading Romney (if they don't, we're looking at a Romney landslide of epic proportions). Murphy's Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) says there's a high likelihood that someone either won't notice or won't be told that this year's "overall" demographic results aren't comprehensive, and will jump at the chance to break what ends up being a bogus "Obama Pulling Away" or "Obama Wins" story.
Additionally, the linked Washington Post story didn't indicate which 15 of the 31 included states will have larger sample sizes. Demographic-driven overall reporting could easily be distorted if the larger sample sizes are included with the other 16 states without larger sample sizes without adjustment.
In short, though I hope I'm wrong, all of this looks like it has the potential to create accidental or deliberate Election Night confusion which favors the incumbent. Given the establishment press's comprehensively dishonest and biased conduct during the 2012 presidential campaign, it would be foolish to discount that possibility.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.