Exit Interviews on the Exit Poll

San Francisco State University history lecturer Steve Leikin, left, talks with a student at a university election rally in October. Leikin was working with the campaign against Proposition 32. Photo by Ian Hill/KQED.

Leading California pollsters are raising questions about the accuracy of the Edison Research exit poll (viewable on the CNN website) in terms of how big a share young voters — and non-white voters — comprised of all those casting ballots in California in last Tuesday’s election.

What’s not in dispute: Young voters and “ethnic voters” (which is to say Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans) played an influential role in California’s big Democratic turnout… helping to pass Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax hike measure, and giving President Obama a 21 percentage point edge in the already-blue state.

As we reported last week, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo cast doubt on the share of last Tuesday’s voters who were under 30. The Edison exit poll put 18-29 year olds at 27 percent of Californians who voted in this election. But 18-29 year olds make up just 16 percent of all registered voters in the state, said DiCamillo. And in 2008 exit polling showed this age group was 20 percent of California voters.

“I certainly believe that the story line of this elections the power of ethnic voters, and that younger voters turned out in high numbers,” DiCamillo said. “It has to do with the governor [specifically Gov. Brown's campaign for Prop. 30] and online registration [which went into effect in September and has so far been used mostly by young Californians]…. But I can’t believe the 27 percent. That’s a huge number. To move the needle one full percentage point is a big thing, to move it seven or eight points is beyond credibility.”

And the incredulity extends to the Edison exit poll’s reported share of voters who are not white.

  • DiCamillo and others note that of all the registered voters in California, 5.5 percent are black, and they typically turn out roughly in their population proportion. But according to the exit poll, they are 8 percent of Tuesday’s voters.
  • Asian Americans make up an estimated 10 percent of the state’s registered voters. The exit poll put their share of the turnout at 11 percent.
  • And Latinos are 23 percent of registered voters in California. are Latino. The exit poll showed them making up 22 percent of Californians who voted this election. But Latinos are younger and are less likely to have gone to college, on average, than the overall population, while older, better educated people historically vote at higher rates. “So even with good turnout, I would expect they would be a couple of points below their total registration,” observed Di Camillo.

Other political observers concur that the exit poll may not have gotten a perfectly accurate picture of who voted in California. “Because of early voting, exit polls no longer quantify the electorate accurately,” said Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. “I would use exit polling for how people voted, not quantifying what the electorate looks like.”

Sacramento blogger Scott Lay has come up with his own “blending” of pre-election Field Poll turnout predictions and Edison exit polling to estimate actual turnout as somewhere in between the two.

Over the next couple of months, pollsters, scholars and political analysts will be digging in deeper: looking at turnout information from the Census Bureau’s November Current Population Survey, as well as the number crunching of private campaign consulting firms such as Political Data Inc. — to get a more accurate sense of the shape of the electorate: who turned out and in what proportion.

In the absence of precise figures, plain old political common sense prevailed.

“It was a very good night for Democrats,” said Mark Baldassare, president and chief pollster at the Public Policy Institute of California. “It just suggests to me that you must have had this high turnout of Latinos and younger voters, and a very poor showing among Republicans.”

“How did California Democrats win a supermajority in the legislature?” Tulchin asked. “The Obama coalition of young voters, Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, and throw in some white liberals: It gave Obama a big margin. His win exceeded what polling showed would happen. It’s the same with Prop. 30…. And in California, a young voter is overwhelmingly Latino or Asian.”

UC Irvine Political Science Professor Louis DeSipio wondered why the turnout of young people in the state did appear to get a substantial boost, while in the country as a whole it did not.

“Was there something unique in California?” asked De Sipio. “There’s no particular reason that the presidential race would mobilize more young people in a noncompetitive state like California. Maybe people turned out for some tight Congressional races, but the unique issue in California was the mobilization around Prop. 30. One big effect [if the measure failed] was to diminish funding for community colleges, the UCs and the CSUs. There was a message coming from college administrations and unions organizing, and young people felt it.”

DiCamillo was startled to see that white voters in California dropped to just 55 percent of all who voted, according to the Edison exit poll. “I’ve never seen an election in California below 60 percent white,” he said. “It jumps out at me. Wow. I don’t think we’re that far down the road yet. I think it’s coming, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Whether young people and non-white voters exceeded turnout expectations in California this year, the Golden State is pointing the direction for where the rest of the country is headed, observers say.

And Di Camillo gets the last word: “The main message of this election is that the ethnic vote really powered the Obama victory in California, it really powered the Prop 30 vote on the yes side. And the same thing goes with the youth vote. It was the youth vote that turned out in force that probably made the difference on Prop. 30.”