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Joe Lenski Interview: Part 1

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Joe Lenski is the co-founder and executive vice-president of Edison Media Research. Under his supervision, and in partnership with Mitofsky International, the company of his later partner Warren Mitofsky, Edison Media Research currently conducts all exit polls and election projections for the six major news organizations -- ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press. He spoke with Mark Blumenthal last week about plans for the exit polls and network projections this year.

It's really almost surreal for me -- and I think for all of us -- to think about an Election Day and the topic of exit polls without the presence of your mentor and former business partner, the late Warren Mitofsky. A few days after his passing in September, I wrote a post that recalled a phone call I made about 16 years ago when I was young and foolish and how astonished I was in retrospect that he took the call, and that he was patient and kind in answering what was really a very naive question. And you sent me an email and few days later and I wondered if you could share with our readers the thoughts you shared with me.

It's true, Warren did have this real enthusiasm for being around young people and teaching young people and listening to their questions and answering their questions. In sorting out his affairs after he passed, I looked at his calendar and he was involved with just about every University that's doing some sort of polling in the area. He was on the board of the Marist Poll, he was teaching a course on exit polling at Columbia University, he was helping Seton Hall establish their sports poll, he was scheduled to do a lecture at American University in DC, and so the 27 year old Mark Blumenthal that called him 16 years ago wasn't an oddity. Twenty-somethings all over the place -- he had been learning from them in the classroom or in New York AAPOR workshops, or making the same types of calls you made in getting answers from them over the phone. I heard a lot about that at his memorial service and I saw a lot of tributes similar to the one you wrote mentioning very similar stories.

Well, let's get to the business at hand. I'd like, in the limited time we have, for you to briefly give our readers some sort of sense of how this whole operation works. I think most political junkies understand that television networks conduct exit polls on Election Day and project winners at the end of the night. I don't think they have a sense for how complex this whole operation is. Could you give us a brief explanation of how it works?

Sure. First, there is a group called the National Election Pool [NEP], and just so everyone understands who that group is, that is the pool of the five television networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and the Associated Press -- so it's the networks and the Associated Press who have formed this pool. We at Edison Research and Mitofsky International have a contract with those six members and we provide them with exit polling, sample precinct vote counts, and election projection information on Election Day and election night. The news organizations have the editorial control: they choose the races to cover, they choose the size of the samples, they choose the candidates to cover, they write the questions that are asked. We at Edison Research and Mitofsky International implement that -- we have a system in place where this year we'll have over a thousand exit poll interviews around the country at more than a thousand polling locations. We will have more than two thousand sample precinct vote count reporters at more than two thousand locations around the country. We'll be gathering that information during the day, distributing it to the six members and several dozen other news organizations that subscribe to our service and we will also be providing our analysis and projections of the winners of those races at poll closing and after poll closing as actual votes come in. The news networks and the Associated Press reserve the right to make their own projections based on our data and any other data they may collect, and they have their own decision teams in place to review any projections we send them. But basically the source of the data they will be using on elections are the exit polls and the sample precinct vote counts our interviews and reporters collect, and the county voter returns that are collected by the Associated Press and fed through our system into our computations and out to the members and subscribers.

What sort of system or algorithm will you be using to project which party wins control of the House of Representatives?

We at Edison-Mitofsky are not going to project House seats. The individual news organizations are going to make projections seat by seat. What we are going to do provide is an estimate of the national vote by party in the House races, but there are a bunch of complications in taking that and applying it at a seat-by-seat level. It's a lot like the Electoral College. We know popular vote doesn't necessarily translate into Electoral College votes. Similarly because of Gerrymandering, we know that popular vote for the House does not translate into House seats directly as well.

But in addition there are other complications. One is there are 55 house districts where one party or the other party has not nominated a candidate. And this year because of the added Democratic activism there are only 10 districts where Republicans are running unopposed but there are 45 districts where Democrats are running unopposed. So there are 45 districts where the Democrats are going to get 100 percent of the vote for House. And so those districts are going to account for 4, 5, 6 points of Democratic advantage, solely from undisputed races.

So I think all those factors could contribute to Democrats having a sizeable lead in the popular vote for the House and in the exit poll estimate of the popular vote for the House, but that might not necessarily translate into a Democratic majority in seats in the House or a Democratic majority in seats that is as large as the popular vote that they are going to receive.

So again, early exit poll estimates or even later exit poll estimates may show a significant Democratic lead in terms of the Democratic vote for the House that may not translate into House seats, but that doesn't mean the exit poll is wrong. It just means the exit poll is measuring something different. It's measuring the number of votes by party; it's not necessarily measuring the number of seats per party.

[Editor's Note: For a detailed discussion of the relationship between the national vote for Congress and seat gain or loss, see this post by Pollster.com's Charles Franklin].

So the consortium members will have that data available to them on Election Night and may use that as part of their decision matrix to essentially call the race for the House. Is that right?

Again, this is an editorial decision the news organizations themselves will make . To predict the number of seats for the House, you really have to look at those 40, 50, 60 competitive seats, district by district, and make estimates on each one.

One of the things -- one of the misperceptions I think of the exit poll projection system you have -- is that the mid-day estimates based on the exit polls would often leak, people would see them, and I think the misperception was that you'd see a candidate leading by two or three or four percentage points and people would assume that numbers meant that that candidate would win. What can you tell us about the margin of error if you will, for those exit poll estimates, if you look at them at the end of the day just before the polls close, how much of a margin would a candidate need to have before you consider it statistically meaningful enough to call the election?

Well, that varies based on the size of the precinct sample and the number of interviews that are taking place in each state and also the correlations with past vote, with the higher the correlations the lower the standard error calculated. One of the interesting things in your question is everywhere the data leaked in 2004, it was only the estimates that leaked, never did it leak with our computational status, which tells whether the race is "too close to call," or with what we call "leading status," or what we call "call status." All of those races then -- and there were four presidential states where Kerry had a point or two or three point lead in the exit poll that ended up going for Bush -- none of those ever were outside the "too close to call" status when we were distributing that to our members. So all the news organizations that had paid for the data and were looking at the data, knew those races were too close to call, even if it was 51-48 in the exit poll. Those were well within the standard errors that we have calculated before we have even a "leading" or "call" status in the race. Everything that was leaked on the web, none of that had the standard errors or none of them had the computation statuses that we assigned to each of those races based on the margin determined by the calculated standard errors.

And just briefly, what level of statistical confidence do you require before you give a state "call status," which is the recommendation to your NEP consortium members that you are ready to call a winner?

Again that varies depending on the circumstances. The rough rule of thumb is three standard errors, which would be 99.5% confidence.

Blumenthal's interview with Joe Lenski continues tomorrow with a discussion of the problems the exit poll experienced in 2004 and what will be done differently this year.

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