NEW YORK — The Associated Press said Tuesday that it will begin conducting an elaborate election voter survey designed to replace the traditional in-person exit poll, which has been criticized in recent years for inaccuracy and failing to keep up with changes in how Americans vote.
AP is convinced that science is on its side. Still, it's a bold and potentially risky move for the news cooperative, which counts political coverage as a strong suit and which has, until recently, pooled resources with ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News to conduct exit polling in major elections.
AP has been concerned about the accuracy of in-person exit polls for the past several years, said Sally Buzbee, the news agency's executive editor. On election night in 2016, when she was then serving as AP's Washington bureau chief, she directed that only actual results be used to declare winners after exit poll results varied widely from actual vote returns. The exit poll that year was far more favorable to Hillary Clinton in many states than to eventual winner Donald Trump.
"If you don't trust it enough to use it, it doesn't have much value," Buzbee said.
The new AP VoteCast service, developed with NORC at the University of Chicago, uses a combination of online and telephone surveys conducted four days before Election Day and through the close of polls. In all, AP expects to conduct more than 85,000 interviews with voters for this year's midterm election survey, said David Scott, the AP's deputy managing editor for operations. That's far more than the roughly 19,400 conducted by the exit poll in 2014, Scott said, allowing for a deeper and more accurate understanding of the electorate.
The poll's methodology allows for results from every state holding a statewide election, Scott said, as well as details about the opinions of registered voters who elect not to cast a ballot. AP's approach will deliver to customers more reliable information on what drives the choices of different segments of the electorate than is available from traditional exit polls, Scott said.
Unlike the exit poll, VoteCast won't use people with clipboards seeking to buttonhole voters after they leave polling places, an approach AP argues is no longer appropriate in an era when 40 percent of the electorate votes early, absentee or by mail. That percentage is growing in every election, Buzbee said.
There's also concern that in-person exit polls, in a polarized political climate, fail to capture the opinion of all voters. In the roughest years for the accuracy of exit polls, 2004 and 2016, the surveys showed a stronger vote for the Democratic presidential candidates than actually took place.
AP said it successfully tested the approach that would become AP VoteCast in three statewide elections last year. Among them, a special election for U.S. Senator in Alabama in which the poll predicted Democrat Doug Jones would beat Republican Roy Moore 50 to 47 percent. The actual tally was 50 to 48 percent.
AP spent "millions" of dollars to develop the new system, said Gary Pruitt, AP president and CEO, although he would not be more specific. AP considers it a long-term investment that will pay off if the new system becomes the industry standard.
"We certainly consider it a bold move but we do think it will pay off because we think it will prove to be an accurate reflection of voter sentiment and what was driving elections," Pruitt said.
AP has conducted research aimed at improving the exit poll for the past decade, funded in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its 2017 experiments were conducted in partnership with Fox News, which like AP quit the National Election Pool of media organizations last year.
Fox News is AP's first customer for its new polling service, which the network will use to power what it plans to call the Fox News Voter Analysis. AP said Tuesday that The Washington Post has also signed up to receive VoteCast results in several states.
ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC have opted to remain together as the National Election Pool, using an in-person exit poll administered by Edison Research. The four networks have also hired Edison to provide them with election returns, replacing a service NEP previously bought from AP. AP has conducted its nationwide tally of election results since 1848.