Last week's column covered some of the nagging problems with exit polls and the way some of us, arguably, misuse them. This week, let's look at the reason exit polls are so vital and important to our understanding of elections, particularly Tuesday's Mississippi primary.
Did Republicans cross over in Mississippi just to assist McCain by prolonging the Democratic fight?
The Mississippi exit poll tabulations posted on network Web sites last night show a new wrinkle in the Democratic presidential contest: Twelve percent of the Democratic primary voters in Mississippi described themselves as Republicans, a level far higher than in previous primaries. As the pro-Barack ObamaJed Report notes, the percentage of Republican identifiers voting in Democratic nomination contests has increased significantly in recent weeks -- from 4 percent in states that held primaries in January and February to 9 percent in the March 4 primaries to 12 percent in Mississippi on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton's support among Republicans (in the states where the Republican subgroup was large enough to merit reporting) rose from 31 percent in January and February to 48 percent on March 4 to 75 percent in Mississippi. Overall, 9 percent of the Mississippi Democratic primary voters were self-identified Republicans who voted for Clinton.
If nothing else, those sorts of findings would be impossible without standardized, representative sample surveys of actual voters. Mississippi lacks party registration, so it would be impossible to check the party affiliation of voters there without an exit poll. Moreover, given the myriad of registration laws and procedures, the standard party identification question used on the exit poll (which asks voters whether they "usually think of" themselves as a Democrat, Republican or independent) is the only way to make such comparisons across states.
But the plot thickens. We really want to know why so many Republicans voted in the Mississippi Democratic primary. Are they ready to support a Democratic nominee, or are they just voting to help John McCain and undermine the Democrats? Or is there another reason?
As many bloggers have noted today, the limited exit poll tabulations posted online include some tantalizing evidence. The Jed Report finds (extrapolating a bit from the posted numbers) that roughly a quarter of Clinton's voters in Mississippi had strongly favorable ratings of McCain and were not convinced that the New York senator has "offered clear and detailed plans to solve the country's problems." Another one-fourth said she does not "inspire them about the future of the country."
Of course, as the Politico's Ben Smithpoints out, those numbers alone cannot tell us for certain whether the Clinton voters who like McCain (or the Clinton voters who would be dissatisfied with a Clinton nomination) are the same people as the Republicans who supported Clinton. But thanks to Sarah Dutton at CBS News, who has shared some cross-tabulations with us, we have a bit more clarity.
The exit poll interviewed 147 Mississippi Democratic primary voters who supported Clinton but identified themselves as Republicans:
85 percent rated John McCain favorably, and 58 percent had a "strongly" favorable opinion of him
41 percent said they would be dissatisfied if Clinton were the Democratic nominee.
56 percent said Clinton has not "offered clear and detailed plans to solve the country's problems."
62 percent said Clinton does not inspire them "about the future of the country."
72 percent said Clinton is not "honest and trustworthy."
Taken together, these results suggest that a significant number of the Clinton Mississippi Republicans -- perhaps half or more -- plan to support McCain in November. But did these Republicans just turn out to assist McCain by prolonging the Democratic fight or boosting a candidate they consider easier to beat?
The exit poll suggests another motivation. These Clinton Republicans also expressed very negative views of Barack Obama:
91 percent said Clinton is more qualified to be commander in chief; only 3 percent said Obama is more qualified.
94 percent said Obama does not inspire them "about the future of the country."
89 percent would be dissatisfied if Obama were the Democratic nominee.
86 percent said Obama is not "honest and trustworthy."
86 percent said Obama has not "offered clear and detailed plans to solve the country's problems."
82 percent said Clinton should not pick Obama to be her running mate if she is the nominee.
So the primary motivation of Clinton's Mississippi Republicans may be a desire to stop Barack Obama, although many may be motivated by tactical shenanigans as well. Whatever we conclude, the public would have no information at all about these sorts of issues without exit polling. The sometimes deceptive instant gratification of peering at "the exits" before the vote is counted may be the crack cocaine of politics, but getting hard data on questions of who voted and why is the reason we ought to care about exit polls.
-- Mark Blumenthal is editor and publisher of Pollster.com. His e-mail address is email@example.com.