Most of the questions asked in the official exit poll for the New Hampshire primary today are routine: Are you liberal or conservative, black or white, male or female, and, by the way, how did you vote?

But then out of nowhere comes this sucker punch:

“Regardless of how you voted today, do you think Howard Dean has the temperament to serve effectively as president?”

No other questions about specific candidates were asked.

What’s that about?

Reading from an official statement, a harried spokesperson for the National Election Pool, a consortium of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the AP that administered the poll, told Campaign Desk: “Dean’s temperament has been much discussed throughout the campaign. He fell from a significant lead in New Hampshire. Did questions about his temperament after the Iowa speech contribute to that? The exit poll would be remiss if it didn’t try to find out.”

The spokeswoman stressed that because this was an exit poll, it wouldn’t affect New Hampshire’s results. She’s wrong; the very existence of the question, first reported this afternoon by Howard Kurtz at WashingtonPost.com, could well sway late voters.

More important, what about South Carolinians, Missourians, Arizonans, and all the rest who have yet to vote? Even if few startled New Hampshire voters answer “no” to that loaded question, it seems certain to make news — and to supply ammunition to Dean opponents.

Simply by tossing that stink bomb into the official exit poll, the networks and their consortium have blatantly inserted themselves as players, rather than reporters, in the Democratic primaries to come.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.