Utah Colleges Exit Poll attracts national attention

Stephen Hunsaker and Naomi Dorsey meet to discuss progress within their committees in the Utah Colleges Exit Poll leadership class. (Ryan Turner)

Demand for exit poll data is increasing as election outcomes in Utah are looking less predictable. Without their own infrastructure for statewide exit polling, national media outlets are relying on BYU for its Utah Colleges Exit Poll data.

“They want to know as soon as possible, and we’re able to accurately predict who’s going to win before the actual votes are counted,” said Nate King, the chair of the Public Relations Committee for this year’s exit poll.

Organizations such as MSNBC and CNN may broadcast the exit poll’s data nationally on Election Day.

The national interest makes working with the project this year particularly appealing, according to King.

“You’re going to be part of a project that’s going to get a lot of airtime,” King said. 

The project consists of volunteers polling Utah voters about their demographics, who they voted for and their opinions on timely issues.

“We can say how they’re going to vote and why,” King said.

Once the polling has concluded, students in the exit poll lab class pair up and analyze the data from different angles, such as voter turnout, voting methods and gender’s influence on voting.

Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Southern Utah University, Weber State University, Westminster College and, for the first time, University of Utah are all working together for this year’s poll.

“It’s been remarkable to me how consistently other schools have wanted to participate,” said Professor David Magleby, the exit poll project director and a senior scholar with BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

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The unique nature of the 2016 presidential election

A Republican presidential candidate may not win Utah for the first time since 1964, which makes this year’s Utah Colleges Exit Poll special, according to participants.

“It was a no-brainer,” said economics major Devin Johanson. “This election is incredible; there are so many things going on, and the opportunity we have to study it is just fascinating.”

A recent poll from Emerson College showed independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in the lead, polling four points ahead of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton only trailing Trump by three points.

“In this particular year, more than in any year in the project’s history, the presidential vote is going to be really interesting and potentially quite competitive,” said Magleby. “We really don’t know who is going to win for a variety of reasons, and that makes it exhilarating, I think, for the students and professors involved.”

An evolving project

Magleby has been involved with the exit poll since its inception in 1982. Volunteers have conducted exit polling for every election in Utah since.

The project has evolved in many ways over the past 34 years. For example, mail-in voting in Utah has led to changes in where and when exit polling happens. But many changes have been motivated by the student volunteers, who are expected to take ownership of the project and propose new ideas, which means it’s always evolving from election to election.

“We get to run the project,” said post-baccalaureate student Amber Dukes. “We get to determine what questions are asked and do all the logistical planning.”

The political science class also works with students from statistics and communications. The statistics class helps determine what voting locations pollsters should be sent to and who should be surveyed. The communications class creates an election night show on KBYU, which will release the results of the poll.

More than 1,000 BYU students are involved in the project, according to Magleby.

Most of these students are recruited from American Heritage and Statistics 121 to serve as pollers on election day.

“They devote an extraordinary amount of time and effort to the project,” Magleby said about students.

And this year is the time to be involved, according to King, the project’s public relations committee chair.

“This is the most exciting election cycle,” King said. 

The leadership

Political science student Naomi Dorsey participated in the exit poll as a volunteer prior to taking on a leadership role. She said as an absentee voter, polling Utah voters enhanced her own Election Day experience.

“I think it just made the experience of Election Day so much more real,” Dorsey said. “You realize that people are really invested in elections and that they care.”

Political science student Chris Joyner said exit polling helps elected officials in Utah know what’s important to their constituents.

“It helps you learn about what the people want,” Joyner said. “I mean, that’s the point of the democracy, is that their desires and their wishes are represented.”

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