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Exit polls will give us an early — but imperfect — glimpse of the Election Day results

Exit polls in the 2018 midterms will be a little different after a couple of media outlets have split off.

A voter exits a polling place during early voting in Tennessee in October 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The 2018 midterm elections have arrived, and with them the infamous exit polls that start to roll out before official results come in.

We might know what happened between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz in Texas, or Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp in Georgia, long before the final votes are counted. Or at least we’ll have some signs, thanks to television networks and other media outlets releasing the results of exit polls that try to predict how votes are shaking out.

Exit polling can be a tricky business, though, and not necessarily reflective of how elections will turn out — some early exit polls in 2016 pointed to a victory for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, for example.

Given the high stakes of the 2018 midterms and the intense interest, many Americans will likely be watching the exit polls closely on Tuesday. Beyond projecting a winner, exit polls can also help explain why a candidate won — indicating which voters went to the polls in bigger numbers.

But the system isn’t perfect, and two news outlets this year are trying something new. Here’s what to expect tonight when the polls close and exit polls start rolling in.

How exit polls work — and why they’re going to be a little different this year than in years past

Nationwide exit polls date back to the 1970s, according to Pew Research, starting with CBS and soon followed by the other networks. They started to pool their efforts in the 1980s, when they formed Voter Research and Surveys, which eventually became Voter News Service (VNS) in 1993.

VNS dissolved after some mishaps in 2000 and 2002, and the National Election Pool (NEP) was formed after that. Up until this election, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CNN, and the Associated Press hired a pollster — most recently, Edison Research — to conduct exit polls.

This year, things are going to go a little differently because Fox News and the Associated Press have split off and are doing their own thing.

ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC will again work with Edison, interviewing voters at polling locations in all 50 states. Edison has also sent interviewers to in-person early voting locations and interviewed early and absentee voters by phone prior to the election.

In 2016, Edison interviewed some 85,000 people on day-of voting and spoke with about 16,000 early an absentee voters by phone.

AP, Fox News, and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago have instead this year teamed up for a new project dubbed VoteCast, which will survey 120,000 registered voters and have three parts — a random phone and online survey of registered voters, a group of voters from NORC’s panel, and an opt-in online survey.

Multiple other news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, will use the VoteCast system in 2018.

“We thought it was necessary to try something new,” Arnon Mishkin, head of Fox News’s Decision Desk, said at a polling conference in Denver earlier this year, according to NPR.

The issue at hand was, in part, early exit polling in 2016 pointing to a win for Clinton.

Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the AP, told the Post recently that recognizing the exit polls had been wrong about Clinton was a “sobering moment that told me that we needed to try to see if we could use an alternative going forward.”

So this year, we’ll see two sorts of sets of exit polling results that could, potentially, tell different stories.

You can learn more from exit polls than who won

The primary purpose of the exit poll is to allow TV networks and the AP to project who’s won races as soon after the polls close as possible.

Ahead of Election Day, NBC News laid out how it will present data that might help you understand what the calls mean — projected winner means the network believes a candidate will win but the vote count isn’t complete, apparent winner means that the candidate has likely won but results could depend on a recount or official tallies, and the winner will be declared when a race is beyond the margin for a recount. You’ll also, of course, hear a lot of “too early” or “too close” to call.

But the exit poll isn’t just about whom people voted for — that’s why there are interviewers even in safe states. Voters are asked to provide basic demographic information like gender, age, and ethnicity. They’re also asked some questions about their personal viewpoints and behaviors, like their religion and churchgoing habits, and about major issues facing the country.

That means the exit poll data is actually more detailed, in some ways, than the official US Census vote tallies that come out several weeks after the election. It can offer the first hints, and often the most important ones, of what voters thought this election was about. That’s very important to pundits as they try to interpret what it means.

“It’s more than calling a race,” Jay McCann, a political science professor and exit polls expert at Purdue University, told me. “The big question is what explains an outcome, and exit polls, by virtue of the fact that you’re interviewing individual voters at the site when they’ve just made the decision, that would give you some insights that other kinds of polls conducted further away in time couldn’t really give you.”

In 2004, for example, post-election chatter focused on ”values voters.” Voters who attended religious services regularly had overwhelmingly voted for George W. Bush. That narrative came out of the exit poll data.

Of course, what voters say is important to them is partly what campaigns have told voters is important — there’s political science research suggesting that when a campaign hammers particular issues, those are the issues that the candidate’s supporters say are most important to them. But the exit poll is still the best opportunity the national media has, in some ways, to figure out who voted, why, and how.

Election results — exit polling and otherwise — aren’t in real time

The media outlets running the exit poll want to be able to describe who’s voting, and whom they’re voting for, to the public as early as possible. But they don’t want to have any influence on who ends up voting — they don’t want anyone deciding not to vote because they’ve already seen what the exit polls say and they don’t think their vote will matter. (There’s some evidence that this happened back in 1980, when some outlets projected that Ronald Reagan would win the presidential election before polls closed on the West Coast.)

Sometimes, networks slip up. In 2014, for example, Fox News showed early exit poll results in New Hampshire before polls had closed there in a tight Senate race. The network argued that it hadn’t broken the exit poll rules because it technically didn’t show how many respondents had voted for Jeanne Shaheen or Scott Brown — it showed how many people said they would vote for each candidate if the race came down to a runoff.

There’s never been a completely leaked exit poll in the US, but there are sometimes hoaxes.

Some reporters are allowed to see some exit poll results as they come in, but they’re under strict security.

At about 5 pm ET, media outlets start reporting what the exit polls say about who turned out — namely, who turned out earlier in the day. And as soon as the polls close in particular states, media outlets are allowed to start projecting winners based on exit polls results. In other words, a slew of projections are likely to start coming in at about 7 pm on the East Coast.

The New York Times this year will also bring back its infamous “needle,” which will tip back and forth starting in the evening as results begin to come in with projections about who will control the House of Representatives, the range of seats each party could hold, and an estimate for the final national popular vote, among other things.

Exit polls aren’t always right

Exit polls are an imperfect system; hence the issue with early signs pointing to Clinton in 2016 that’s causing some outlets to switch things up.

“There are a couple of challenges in the current environment,” McCann told me. “There may be a systematic tendency for some types of people not to want to participate.”

Early voting poses a challenge for exit pollsters because they’re still figuring out exactly how to approach it. Both the NEP and VoteCast survey early voters, but early voting is a relatively new — though very fast-growing — trend, and they’re still figuring out processes. Early voting polls via phone run into the same problems a lot of phone polls do — that it’s hard to poll people who only have mobile phones and who don’t often pick them up.

“I have to assume, and there’s been some reporting on this, that it’s much more haphazard,” McCann said.

Sample size can also be a challenge because the smaller the sample, the less likely it is to be representative. Exit polls are reliable when it comes to large demographics (men, women, Democrats, Republicans) but less reliable as it gets more granular (young voters, Jewish voters). Analysts also believe that exit polls have a tendency to oversample voters of color who live in majority-white areas.

Exit polls will tell us a lot about the 2018 elections, but not everything

Exit poll results on Tuesday will be eye-opening in terms of how voters feel about issues such as health care and immigration, who turned out to vote, and whom specific groups voted for. And, of course, they’ll be telling about who wins and loses.

But some other components of the 2018 midterm elections will take a lot longer to figure out. Turnout, for example, could take days, weeks, or months to completely decipher, simply because completely counting all votes takes a long time. Mail-in and absentee vote processing can last past the election, and in California, the most populous state, ballot counting can be especially drawn-out.

The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, which has collected voter and registration data since 1964, will look at self-reported registration and voting activity and release its results in the spring or summer of next year. (Its breakdown of the 2016 election was released in May 2017.) As Pew notes, that data and other post-election surveys often don’t get as much media attention as exit polls — the news cycle has often moved on — but that information could provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the midterms.