Cautiously, networks return to exit polls

By , Editor of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the forbidden fruit of election night TV. Every network has access to exit polls, which give a detailed scorecard of what voters were thinking after they emerged from the voting booth. But in 2000 and again in 2004, the polls proved problematic in predicting the winner of the presidential race.

The closer the election, the more dangerous it is to rely on exit polls.

Tonight, with opinion surveys in recent weeks having shown persistent strength for Barack Obama – and with turnout very, very strong, especially in battleground states – the temptation to call states before substantial returns just proved too much.

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Just after 7 p.m. (ET), CNN and Fox News jumped, calling Kentucky for McCain and Vermont for Obama, based largely on the exit polls. AP followed.

But you could tell there was a little discomfort on the set of Fox. Brit Hume made a point of warning: "This is exit poll information and we all recall that four years ago we were looking at President Kerry. ... We are regarding all exit polls for what they show."

As the New York Times reported today, some commentators just didn't see the point of being sticklers about avoiding exit polls. It was just common sense, as they saw it.

The Times quoted David Plotz, editor of Slate, as saying, "If Obama is winning heavily," he could see calling the race "sometime between 8 and 9."

California and most of the West Coast would still be hours away from poll closing if that happened. But those exit polls are tempting.

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