Winning Wisconsin: Do Recall Exit Polls Suggest a Blue State in November?


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Were Exit Polls in Wisconsin Accurate?

Governor Scott Walker has declared victory in Wisconsin, but will fellow Republican Mitt Romney be successful in November? Photo Credit: Wispolitics

Early exit poll data was leaked Tuesday afternoon, indicating the gubernatorial election was a dead even, 50/50 split.

These leaks undoubtedly delighted Walker opponents, since polls conducted prior to election day had Walker leading.  Adding to the speculation of an upset were reports that early exit polls had Obama polling well ahead of Romney among Wisconsin voters who participated in the recall election.

Shortly after the polls closed, however, exit polling data was updated to a 52 to 48 split in favor of Walker.

The change may have been due to absentee ballots being figured in, data being analyzed from voters who got to the polls later in the day, or both. In the end, the final result of the election was within two points in each direction of the exit poll data.

What Did the Exit Polls Say About Obama?

Obama’s lead held somewhat steady from the time early poll results were leaked until the time they were finalized. His edge over Romney in the state varied between 6 and 12 points, depending on the time information was reported, and the source of the reports. Final exit polling data suggests a 51 to 44 split in favor of Obama. Based on this information, 18 percent of Obama supporters who voted in the recall election favored Walker.

Exit Poll Flaws

Exit poll results can be misleading when they are leaked early, since they are not analyzed and adjusted to reflect a complete snapshot of the electorate. This was also evident in the 2004 presidential election when early exit polls indicated John Kerry was well ahead of George W. Bush. When they are not analyzed too early, exit polls are very reliable since the sample consists of actual voters and there is no need to account for likely versus unlikely voters. There are, however, some consistent flaws with exit polling. The biggest concern is that many voters refuse to be interviewed.  These voters tend to have more conservative ideologies, so exit polls are sometimes biased toward Democrats by small degrees.

Interpreting the Exit Poll Results

Obama’s reported lead in the exit poll is large enough for many observers to conclude that he is likely ahead in the state, although the size of the lead may be questionable, depending on possible exit poll flaws. The Wisconsin recall results are similar to the 2010 races that put Walker into office and saw sweeping GOP victories throughout Wisconsin and the nation. Conservatives are quick to use this comparison to claim that Wisconsin has shifted to the right since 2008, when Obama won the state handily.

Liberals, however, argue that Walker significantly outspent his recall opponent which may have led to some left-leaning moderates voting for him.  While both these perspectives may hold some truth, there are other factors that could have led to a Walker win despite positive polling for Obama. These include optimistic economic signs in Wisconsin leading voters to favor incumbents on both the state and national levels, and dissatisfaction with the recall process. Arguably the most important conclusion to come out of the Wisconsin recall race is that exit poll data is only accurate after the polls close — at which point you might as well just wait for the official returns to start coming in.


Washington Post.   Despite Walker’s Win, Obama Outpolls Romney in Wisconsin and Wisconsin Exit Poll: What Happened? Accessed June 7, 2012. The Atlantic. What was the Problem with Wisconsin Exit Polls? Accessed June 7, 2012.

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