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Once again, questions are raised about exit polling

With George W. Bush on the verge of being anointed the winner of the battle for the White House by the networks this morning, the exit polls used to make projections of winners in key battleground states appear to have been flawed for the second presidential election in a row.

Although some of John F. Kerry's leads in the state exit polls narrowed during the course of the day yesterday, there was a significant discrepancy between the actual vote total and the polling numbers, particularly in two states believed to be keys to the outcome.

While the exit data had Kerry winning Florida and Ohio by a narrow margin, the actual tabulated vote late last night had Bush carrying Florida by about five points and winning Ohio by two. In addition, a projected Kerry win of about five points in Wisconsin turned into a very tight contest, and what was projected as a close race in North Carolina turned into a double-digit win for Bush.

On election night four years ago, shortly after NBC called Florida's electoral votes for Al Gore, Bush's key strategist, Karl Rove, appeared on that network to complain that the call was "premature." It took 36 days to sort out the results in that state and in the presidential election itself.

There was an eerie sense of deja vu last night when at around 8:30 the issue of exit polling problems surfaced again, as the networks began reporting on Bush campaign claims that those polls were not accurately reflecting the strength of the president's vote in crucial states such as Ohio and Florida.

Reporting from the White House, NBC's David Gregory said that "one [Bush] adviser tells me they are making a strong comeback in Florida. . . . They're feeling a lot better about Florida at this point." On the Fox News Channel, analyst William Kristol observed: "We know that in certain states. . . . Bush is outperforming the exit polls." At around 10 p.m., with the pivotal state of Pennsylvania not yet placed in the Kerry column by the networks, CBS explained that the absentee ballots there were not necessarily in synch with the exit polling.

During the course of election day, the exit polling results that circulated through the media seemed to point toward a strong performance for Kerry in a number of battleground states, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

The exit polling is funded by a consortium of media outlets and sold to a small number of subscribers for more than $20,000. However, the early exit poll data appeared to be leaked to various political web logs, or blogs, many of them leaning left politically. The blogs Daily Kos, the Wonkette and MyDD, as well as Slate online magazine, reported heavy traffic after posting the poll data. The Drudge Report also ran exit poll results.

It was unclear who leaked the numbers, since none of the blogs mentioned their sources. The leaks were considered an important factor in causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 18 points, after it had been up as much as 100 points earlier.

Several networks contacted by the Globe last night said they were not aware of any major problems with the exit polling conducted by two firms, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

NBC News vice president Bill Wheatley said, "There's always some variation [but] I don't see anything startling." He did acknowledge, however, that "the biggest variation" between the exit poll numbers and actual vote had occurred in Pennsylvania, which the network eventually called for Kerry.

"To me, it looks like both Ohio and Florida are going to go very, very late," Wheatley added. "Then we'll see if we can call them. But it won't be based on exit polls."

After the Florida fiasco in 2000 and a problem with exit poll data during the 2002 election, the consortium of networks scrapped the old Voter News Service and opted for a new system in which the Associated Press would have responsibility for the vote counting and Edison and Mitofsky would handle the exit polling and vote tabulation at key precincts. One other major difference between the 2000 and 2004 elections was the networks' determination to be more cautious about projecting winners in contested states.

For much of last night, the television outlets took great pains to inform their viewers of their decision not to rush to judgment. CBS anchor Dan Rather told voters, "If you say, 'my goodness aren't things going slow?' the answer is 'yes by design.' " CNN's Judy Woodruff interviewed the network's political director about why he had not immediately called the solidly Republican state of South Carolina after the polls closed there. "We don't want to jump the gun," she explained.

But if the networks ultimately concluded that viewers were in for a long grinding night, that was at odds with the mood earlier in the day when the circulating exit polls invigorated Kerry supporters and caused some pundits to hint at a win by the Democratic senator.

In a midafternoon CNN appearance, "Crossfire" cohosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala both agreed that reports of massive voter turnout seemed to favor the challenger. "If people are standing outside for three hours to vote, you've got to ask yourself, 'Are they really Republicans?' " said Carlson.

Just as the polls were getting ready to close, a panel of pundits on the Fox News Channel seemed to be conceding the race to Kerry. "I think it's pretty clear, Bush was not able to sell Iraq as a continuation of the war on terror," said political contributor Fred Barnes.

The difference in moods at the two camps was summed up by two ABC reports early last evening. At the White House with the Bush campaign, Terry Moran described a "fighting spirit," but added that "this is not a position, this close, this late, that they expected George W. Bush to be in."

Dean Reynolds, traveling with the Kerry team, reported that "they've been feeling good the last several days about their position. . . . they're content."

But as the accuracy of the early exit polls came into question and Bush maintained popular vote leads in Ohio and Florida after midnight, the earlier optimism in the Kerry camp seemed to be fading. Putting it simply on CNN, Democratic consultant James Carville said, "I think Kerry's got to draw an inside straight."

Raja Mishra of the Globe staff contributed to this report. 

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