September-October 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 7

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Sociologists in Research and Applied Settings

This occasional column focuses on the interesting career paths and achievements of sociologists whose primary work in sociology is not in the academy or whose "extracurricular" work outside academic settings is noteworthy for its societal or policy impact. These sociologists are engaged directly with the public, applying methods of science and their sociological expertise.

Election USA - 2008 . . .

Getting It Right When Polling at the Exits

By Daniel Spar, ASA Governance, Sections, and Archives

With the current U.S. national election garnering extraordinary attention, it is important that the media coverage be as accurate as possible. This is where sociologist Allan McCutcheon, founding Chair of the Survey Research and Methodology Graduate Program and Professor of Statistics and Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, comes in. This past year, he has been working to oversee the predictions and exit-polling in the 2008 presidential primaries and the 2008 general election under the auspices of Edison Media Research. This is a unique, career-affecting opportunity for McCutcheon. "Most of what I’m going to be doing is helping to improve the statistical models to create the most accurate projections possible," said McCutcheon. "I can’t imagine anything more exciting than being able to participate in democracy this way, to apply my survey skills in projecting elections on election night."

The Right Man

And it is no wonder that Joe Lenski, Executive President of Edison Media Research, chose McCutcheon to work along his side. A Fullbright Scholar, past-president of the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research (MAPOR), a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, and a founding director of the Gallup Research Center, McCutcheon has both the background and experience necessary to understand the significance and requirements of the job. "I’ve done survey research all of my academic life," said McCutcheon, "and I am thrilled to be able to apply this academic background to such an important real-world process in American democracy."

Edison Media Research, along with the National Election Pool, is commissioned by all major news networks (i.e., NBC, ABC, CBS, Associated Press, CNN, and FOX) for obtaining and analyzing exit-polling results. Each network and news affiliate agreed to use the election pool for consistency and accuracy. Back in 2004, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International conducted the exit polls for the general election in all 50 states on November 2. These surveys provided Edison Media Research and the public with political, demographic, and geographic information on whom voters would choose for president, senator, governor, and newsworthy statewide propositions. It is Edison Media Research’s goal to provide political coverage that reveals the demographic breakdown by age, gender, education, ethnicity, and political identity.


McCutcheon was pleasantly surprised when offered the chance to work behind the exit-polling scenes. "I was shocked when Joe asked me to work with him on this year’s elections," he said, "but was delighted to do it." And it hasn’t always been easy. "Anytime you try to project data on an election, there are just so many things you wouldn’t expect." This also reminded McCutcheon of what it is like being an academic and differences between being in the classroom and at the polls. "When working on an article or a research piece as an academic, you can think, ‘I can get to it tomorrow,’" he said. "But outside in the ‘real world,’ many things must get done right now."

And the hardest part of the job? "There are many things," said McCutcheon. "I’m the new person at this and I’m still learning. It’s like I spent 25 years teaching the theory about bicycle riding and now I’m actually riding a bicycle."

Close Race Challenges

Edison Media Research has also made concerted attempts to make this year’s exit-polling more accurate than in years past. "The biggest challenge came early in the primary cycle when the contests in both parties were still competitive," said McCutcheon. "This is the first time in a long time that exit polls have been used to help call competitive primary races for both parties. We had to figure out a method to use the incoming exit poll results to account for the different mixes of Democrats and Republicans at each of the polling precincts."

Asked if there were any sociological trends he had seen and not anticipated, McCutcheon was ready with the answer. "The one thing that no one anticipated was the size of turnout on the democratic side," he said. "People are energized. We’re seeing very impressive rates of voting." He also stated that the sociological insight is helpful for providing the best polling possible. "I think being a social scientist—while of course being good with numbers and comfortable with statistics—is invaluable. It’s the ability to anticipate and know what types of patterns will emerge that truly makes a difference."


McCutcheon also mentioned some trends among individual groups. "While there appears to be a much higher-than-usual interest among most Americans in the primaries this year—probably due to the competitiveness of the races in both parties—we have seen exceptionally high levels of interest and participation among young voters and African-American voters," he said. "Having a leading African-American candidate has clearly helped energize African-American voters, just as having a leading woman candidate has energized many women voters, though women have, historically, had very high levels of participation. As for young voters, we may be witnessing a shift in political participation not unlike what we saw in the 1960s."

McCutcheon, thrilled with his experience with Edison Media Research, looks forward to getting back to the University of Nebraska and his students. "I have all the intention of going back to the classroom and working with doctoral students," he said. "I really enjoy that."

For more information on Edison Media Research and exit-polling, visit small_green


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