Remembering '04: Beware of the Polls - They Could Be Oh-So-Wrong!

Thinking back to 2004, when I was a political reporter for CNN, and those exit polls were completely off! Could it happen again?

I woke up today and couldn’t help but remember eight years ago, when I started Election Day in LaCrosse, Wisconsin with the Kerry campaign. I was a CNN correspondent who covered Senator John Kerry (D-MA) during the primaries and throughout the general election. The race was as “tight as a tick” to quote the beloved Dan Rather – just like the current contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact, many pundits have noted how similar this year's presidential contest is to Bush v. Kerry based on just how close it is going into Election Day.

A little known secret is that around 5:30pm ET - hours before the polls close on the East Coast - reporters and campaign officials get the first sense of just how the night (and morning!) could go when exit polling information is released. These exit polls are conducted across the country using interviews with people after they vote. Traditionally, these polls have given the media - and the campaigns - an early sense of who’s going to be up and who’s going to be down going into Election Night.

So let’s head back to 2004. Kerry campaign officials got the news they were hoping for from the exit polls. It looked like their guy was going to win. So on the campaign plane ride from Wisconsin to Boston, the campaign aides and the candidate himself thought they were going to be victorious. Bob Shrum, one of Kerry’s chief campaign advisors, reportedly said, “May I be the first to say 'Mr. President'?" to the senator before the polls closed on the East Coast. Kerry thought he was going to be the next president of the United States. And then something happened. The polls were wrong. The exit polls showed Kerry leading George W. Bush by three percent points, but Bush ended up winning by nearly the same amount.

What happened? Turns out there were procedural problems plus large numbers of Republican voters refused to be surveyed. That all led to inflated numbers for John Kerry, which led to the jubilation turned to depression for Team Kerry.

So why bring this up today? Well, even though those snafus have all hopefully been fixed, it’s important to remember that when exit polling information comes in, there is a chance - a chance - it could be wrong. Trust me. Every reporter and campaign official is aware of that and won’t be popping any champagne bottles on exit polling alone. They’ll want to get results when states officially close and see those Electoral College votes (remember the magic number needed is 270) clicking in their guy’s column.

I also bring it up as another reminder of just how Obama v. Romney is like Bush v. Kerry. In both cases, you had a somewhat vulnerable incumbent (Bush in ’04 and Obama in ’12) and a challenger who hasn’t totally been able to take advantage of his opponent’s vulnerabilities (Kerry then and Romney now). In 2004, the outcome favored the incumbent, George W. Bush. Will history repeat itself, and give this contest to the incumbent as well?

We won’t know until later tonight or even overnight – many hours after we start hearing the first snippets of what the exit pollsters learned!

Watch: What do JWOWW and Katie Couric have in commonThey're both urging you to vote!

Kelly Wallace is chief correspondent of iVillage. She covered politics, including the 2004 presidential campaign and the White House, as a reporter for CNN. You can follow Kelly's political tweets on Twitter (@kellywallacetv).

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