Why Did Bernie Do Better in Exits Than Final Results? Apparently, Millennials Like Exit Polls

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Not really a mystery that bias in favor of younger voters in exit polls would benefit Bernie Sanders.Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/2016 Getty Images

Nate Cohn, a data journalist for the New York Times’ the Upshot, is tired of hearing from Bernie Sanders diehards that the consistent gap between the Vermonter’s numbers in early exit polls and in the final results during the 2016 Democratic primaries proves some monkeying with the raw vote has been going on, and on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. So he offers a reasonably definitive presentation showing why this is happening and why it has nothing to do with “fraud” or some pro-Clinton bias among the counters. 

After noting a number of factors that make early exit polls (the ones taken before they are adjusted to reflect the actual vote, and thus, according to the conspiracy theorists, the purest measure of voter intention) unreliable, Cohn gets to the biggie:

But why were exit polls so tilted toward Mr. Sanders? It’s impossible to be 100 percent sure, but the best-known bias in the exit poll offers a very good explanation: young voters.

Young voters are far likelier to complete the exit polls than older voters, according to data from Edison Research, the organization that conducts the exit polls. The gap is particularly pronounced when the interviewers are also younger, but the gap persists even when older interviewers are conducting the exit interviews.

Some of you may recall the Great Exit-Poll Fiasco of 2004. I certainly will never forget it. That year I had access to the early exit polls, and as a result I spent a good part of Election Night calling friends and family to tell them to ignore that red tide of Bush victories they were watching on TV because the exits showed Kerry winning. I didn’t accept reality until a friend of mine working for Kerry in Miami told me, "We’re done in Florida and done nationally." Investigating the disaster afterward, the people who conducted the exit polls determined the main problem was the young age of their interviewers, which they hypothesized repelled some older voters, skewing the numbers. But, as Cohn notes, subsequent research has shown that the age gap in response persists even when older exit-pollsters are deployed. Young voters just don’t mind answering these things, while old folks often do.

So it’s entirely predictable that this distortion is going to inflate the early exit-poll performance of the presidential candidate with historic levels of support from young voters. And that seems to have happened. The argument that a Clinton conspiracy must be operating because the gap between early exits and final results didn’t occur in the Republican primaries falls for the same reason: There were that many young voters participating in the GOP primaries to begin with, and their support wasn’t concentrated on one candidate. 

Will this argument convince Bernie or Bust folks? Probably not. When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But I must say, it was impressively prescient of the Establishment to start rigging election results years earlier in order to create the data patterns necessary to screw over Bernie in 2016.