Exit polls that chill Western elections. State and local races suffer when voters hear Eastern results
San Francisco — Go directly to the polls. Do not pass your TV set. That's what some political experts would like Westerners to do, out of concern that early election results in the East tonight could influence voters in the West to stay home.
The concern this year is that the presidential race could be a replay of 1980, when the television networks declared Ronald Reagan the victor in a landslide, before polls closed in the West.
If George Bush begins to sweep the United States, as some polls indicate he could, the potential exists for the contest to be over before Westerners are finished casting their ballots.
That could affect the final presidential numbers. More important, however, it could influence several tight contests farther down the ticket, particularly in California and Washington.
``We think it has a chilling effect on the electorate,'' says Karen Marchioro, Washington state Democratic chairwoman. ``People should feel every single vote is a vote that counts.''
Indeed, some critics, such as Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, are going so far as to admonish Americans not to speak to exit pollsters, who do the voter interviews on which the projections are based.
To undermine the polls' results, pugnacious Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko has exhorted voters in the past to lie to the clipboard-carrying interviewers.
The networks ``disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters in the West who can only vote after 6 p.m. [Pacific Standard Time],'' Mr. Munro says.
There is no clear consensus among researchers, however, on the impact of exit polls on voter turnout. Some analysts believe an early projected landslide can mean a 2 percent to 4 percent drop-off in voter participation out West.
``My reading of the research is that it has an effect, a small effect,'' says political scientist Michael Delli Carpini of Barnard College. ``But it could be enough in local races to make a big difference.''
Others pooh-pooh such ideas, however. Foremost among them are the three major television networks.
``There seems to be no evidence there is any effect'' on turnout and election results, says NBC's pollster Laurie Epstein.
Some independent analysts agree. California pollster Mervin Field, for instance, says at least 70 percent of the electorate in the state has already voted by 5 p.m. here, when most polls in the East close and winners are projected.
``There is a lot of talk about exit polls diminishing voter turnout,'' he says. ``But there is just no evidence for it. It's all anecdotal.''
The three major networks vow not to report the results of any state's contests until the majority of polls have closed within a state. (Polls in some states close an hour apart because they straddle two different time zones.)
Although NBC, ABC, and CBS also say they will not characterize the national vote based on their exit polls, they do intend to announce a presidential winner, no matter what the hour, if a candidate exceeds the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected, based on their projections in individual states. Not to do so, they argue, would be withholding the news.
``We don't think we have the ability to dam up the news of a landslide east of the Rockies,'' says George Watson, vice-president and Washington bureau chief of ABC News.
States that have tried to challenge the networks, by limiting or banning exit polls, have not been successful.
Arguing First Amendment protection, the broadcast industry has prevailed in court, most recently in a Minnesota case. In that state, last week, a federal judge blocked a state law prohibiting exit-poll interviews within 100 feet of a polling place.
Most experts, including the networks, say the solution is to close down all voting booths in the nation at the same time - for instance 7 p.m. Pacific time - an option Congress has twice considered but failed to approve.
There is disagreement over which party, if either, would benefit from an early Bush sweep. The obvious danger for the Democrats is that, if the presidential race is already over, Western voters may stay home - hurting other Democratic candidates farther down the ticket.
On the flip side, the Republicans have to battle complacency. Some political scientists say more GOP voters tend to listen to the news after 5 p.m., and could decide their vote isn't needed.
Aware of the potential pitfalls, campaign strategists in several tight races out West are urging people to vote no matter what happens in the East.
The biggest impact could be in the Washington contest for US Senate, where the race between Republican Slade Gorton and Democrat Mike Lowry will probably be decided by two or three percentage points.
Other races that could be affected by voter turnout include the battle for control of the state Senate in Washington, the matchup between Republican Robert Lagomarsino and Democrat Gary K. Hart in one of California's most hotly contested congressional races, and several local-level contests in the West.