Professor shares behind-the-scenes election night experience

By Christine Scalora, NewsNetNebraska

On election night 2012, Allan McCutcheon was one of the first to know the results.

McCutcheon spent Nov. 6 working with the National Election Pool which provides exit polling data for the media on election days.

There’s no room for error.

“If we make a mistake, it is known in real-time to an extremely large audience,” McCutcheon said.

During the last election, the pool called 112 of 119 elections, all without an error.

McCutcheon, Donald O. Clifton Chair of Survey Science at UNL, shared his insights in his presentation “Welcome to the Elections from the Inside: Exit Polls and Election Projections for the Great Plains.” The presentation was a Paul A. Olson Seminar in Great Plains Studies on Wednesday.

McCutcheon said history of election polling really started in the 1936 election, when George H. Gallup went to several publications and said he could predict the election better than Literary Digest.

Gallup used quota sampling. For example, an interviewer would look for women under the age of 40 with a high school education and interview the first three women to meet these criteria.

Polling had a big snafu in 1948, when the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline was wrong.

“People made a lot of their decisions in the last few weeks of the election and they had already stopped collecting data by then,” McCutcheon said.

The next development in polling was the use of computers in 1952, with the first commercial computer used to predict the outcome.

After problems with a similar election service, including in problems in Florida in 2000, the National Election Pool was formed.

Previous election data, pre-election poll data and exit poll data are among the information used by the pool.

In order to ensure accuracy, an election won’t be called until the leading candidate has more than a 1 percent lead over the trailing candidate.

Sean Barry was one of about 50 people who attended the seminar. He asked about ticket splitting during the question and answer session. For example, he saw in previous elections how Nebraska would vote a Democrat to the Senate but pick a Republican for president.

The partisan divide has grown in the past 20 years, McCutcheon said, and ticket splitting appears to be declining.

During the question and answer session, another audience member asked about third party candidates.

“It makes it miserable because if that candidate can pull a sufficient number of votes, then (calling a race) can become very problematic,” McCutcheon said.

But with all the changes in elections since the early 1900s, polling and election methods aren’t permanent.

Telephone pre-election poll response rates are declining. Voters may be voting on the internet in the future, McCutcheon said.

Swing states draw candidates’ attention. Although focusing on those states may be helpful to the parties, it isn’t helpful to the governed, McCutcheon said.

“We need to see more competitive races because it’s good for democracy,” he said.

Live coverage of McCutcheon speech.

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