Jean Hood | Exit surveys offer useful information

RALEIGH — Every two years, exit pollsters attempt to survey voters who have just voted. They station pollsters at hundreds of polling sites across the country. They call and email electors who voted by mail. The resulting exit polls are often heavily criticized and poorly reported (e.g. when journalists circulate and comment on raw election night exit poll totals that have not been weighted by election results real).

Imperfect as they are, exit polls still offer useful information about how and why voters choose candidates. For every political pro who swears by exit polls, there’s a political pro who swears an exit poll result supports a valuable talking point. Often, it is the same person who makes both claims!

In my opinion, as long as you don’t focus on tiny gaps that could simply be the product of faulty sampling, exit polls are a handy tool. Consider, for example, the 2020 gubernatorial race in North Carolina. Incumbent Roy Cooper won with 51.5% of the vote to Dan Forest’s 47%, even as Donald Trump (49.9%) and Thom Tillis (48.7%) won over their Democratic opponents .

In other words, there may be fewer split-ticket voters than there were a generation or two ago, but in a state like North Carolina, they can still be decisive. According to the National Election Pool’s exit poll, Cooper got the votes of 8% of those who voted for Trump and Tillis. Forest received just 2% of the vote from supporters of Biden and Cal Cunningham.

More broadly, political junkies can learn a lot from a new compendium of national exit polls published by the American Enterprise Institute. Some of the questions date back to the 1972 election cycle.

One of the most striking findings concerns the “gender gap,” the propensity of male and female voters to choose different presidential candidates. There was no such gap in 1972 or 1976. But in 1980, men voted for Ronald Reagan at a significantly higher rate (55%) than women (47%). Since then, the gender gap has generally been large. In 2020, Trump won male voters by eight points while Biden won female voters by 15 points.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, the biggest shift in voting behavior over the past half-century has been in Asian-identified voters (a ridiculously broad category, alas, but you work with what you’ve got). Even as Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Asians voted for incumbent President George Bush by a whopping 55% to 31% (Ross Perot receiving the remainder). The Asians also favored Clinton’s 1996 opponent Bob Dole, albeit by a smaller margin.

Since then, however, Democratic candidates have consistently won the Asian vote — by something like a two-to-one margin in 2020, for example, depending on which exit poll you check. While some may have changed their party preferences over time, it is also likely that recently naturalized citizens and younger Asians have different views and priorities than previous generations of Asian voters.

In contrast, there has been little change in black voting habits. Among Republicans, Richard Nixon (18%) and Gerald Ford (16%) fared better among African Americans. Other GOP candidates have generally attracted between 8% and 12%. As for Hispanics, the Republican high point was George W. Bush in 2004 (44%), while most other GOP candidates drew between a quarter and a third of Hispanic votes.

Here’s another notable trend: In the 1980s, college-educated Americans tended to favor Republicans over Democrats. Over the next two decades, however, their votes became less predictable, in part because the universe of college-educated voters grew. Today, while Americans with graduate degrees vote strongly Democratic (62% to 37% in 2020, according to one of the exit polls), the votes of those with undergraduate degrees are really up for grabs. Mitt Romney won that voting group by four points in 2012. Biden won it by four points in 2020.

Exit polls are not perfect. That makes them barely useless, though.

John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (FolkloreCycle.com).

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