Enter, the Exit Poll

What’s the proper analogy? Asking a Clinton voter, as he’s exiting the polling place on primary day, whether he would vote for Obama in November is like… asking someone who fears he may soon lose out on a promotion whether he’d consider befriending The Likely Promotee a few months hence? Like asking someone who fears he may soon be dumped by his girlfriend whether he’d be willing to befriend The Other Man seven months in the future? Er, not quite.

But the point is: obviously you’re bound to hear more hell no’s today, to any of the above questions, than you’re likely to hear several months from today, when everyone has had time to cool off.

So why have I heard so many reporters and pundits make dramatic reference to one piece of one exit poll (the one that says some 25 percent of Clinton-voting Pennsylvanians polled yesterday said that if Obama is the nominee they would vote for McCain and 18 percent said they would not vote at all) without also noting the obvious— that this number is likely to shrink, a goodly number of those no way will I vote for Obama’s will likely become grudging alriiights come November. What, context isn’t sexy or dramatic?

I heard Ann Curry do it on NBC’s Today Show this morning. The Morning Joe crew has been pondering and worrying over it all morning. Finally a Morning Joe guest (and, yes, Obama booster) brought some sense to the discussion:

Scarborough: Congressman, Norah O’Donnell had exit polls that showed… quite a few Democrats saying, about 42%, 43% of Democrats saying in Pennsylvania that they would either vote for John McCain or stay home if Barack Obama was the nominee. How does Barack Obama bring this party together if he beats Hillary Clinton?

Rep. David Price (D, NC): You know if you are looking for an accurate outcome of such a poll, Joe, the very worst time to take it is on primary night. For goodness sakes. The primary passions are at their height and I don’t think that’s a reliable number at all…[T]here will be a job to do in consolidating behind the winner…

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.