Utah Colleges Exit Poll retired after 36 years

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BYU political science professor David Magleby, left, conducts research analysis live on BYUtv with host Bruce Lindsay during the 2016 presidential election. Magleby has been the director for the Utah Colleges Exit Poll for 36 years. (Nathaniel Ray Edwards/BYU Photo)

The Utah Colleges Exit Poll has been an Election Day fixture since 1982. BYU political science professor and poll director David Magelby said this year’s midterms is the first election in 36 years without the student-run poll.

According to Magleby, the Utah Colleges Exit Poll was unique because it was conducted by undergraduate students and included a conglomerate of schools, majors, professors and students across the state. Magleby’s entry-level political science class headed the project, aided by BYU statistics and broadcast journalism students.

Magleby was approached by BYUtv, formerly known as KBYU Eleven, and asked if he’d be interested in conducting its election night analysis in 1982. When he asked what he’d be analyzing, station managers told him it would be the aggregate vote returns.

Magleby countered that there wouldn’t be anything substantial to talk about until well after 10 or 10:30 p.m. — long after most viewers went to bed. He said he’d be willing to host a statewide exit poll and provide analysis on who voted for what and why instead.

The studio agreed, and Magleby secured the funding for the poll soon after.

Students from the University of Utah, UVU, Weber State, Dixie State, Southern Utah University, Westminster, Utah State and BYU helped run the Utah Colleges Exit Poll during the 2016 presidential election.

Magleby said other universities’ participation was essential. Without their efforts, Magleby and his students couldn’t cover the entire state.

In the months preceding each election, Magleby trained his class intensely in survey methodology. The students needed to thoroughly understand the material because it was their responsibility to go to other universities and train their participants, Magleby said.

Professor David Magleby, left, conducts election analysis in 1984, two years after the Utah Colleges Exit Poll’s inception. (David Magleby)

Not only did the poll help establish BYU has a political science and survey research leader, it also helped with university relations, Magleby said.

He recounted advising his students to be themselves when going to other schools as their personable nature would help break down some of the biases and prejudices that existed between schools.

Magleby divided his students into committees based on their strengths. There was a questionnaire committee, a school relations committee, a media relations committee and a data entry and data management committee.

“One of the most enduring lessons that grew out of me as a teacher, and changed me in every other class is, at the university we evaluate students on a narrow band of skills. It is really memorization, some analysis, compressed timed exams and papers,” Magleby said. “A lot of other people have strengths that matter in life — a lot. Maybe they are really organized or personable and can persuade people to do things.”

Non-typical students bloomed in a class where their strengths were appreciated, Magleby said. Their skills were needed to complete the exit poll.

The students’ sense of ownership purveyed their experience, and they were intensely involved on Election Day, according to Magleby. Students were deployed across the state. Some traveled as far as Cedar City and St. George.

These were mostly freshmen who didn’t even know how to pronounce some of the places they were going, Magleby said. They wanted to do well, people expected them to do well and if they didn’t do a good job of it, it would have been very clear the morning after the election.

Sometimes the students would battle freezing temperatures. He recounted sometimes passing out hot chocolate and hundreds of pairs of gloves to try and keep morale up.

Things got more complicated in the latter years as early voting became common, which meant the students had to complete two exit polls simultaneously. They needed a poll ready to go at the voting stations to catch in-person voters but at the same time account for individuals who voted by mail, Magleby said.

To cover those who voted early, Magleby had his political science students draw a random sample of voters from the state files each night and send them each a postcard with an invitation to complete the KBYU Utah Colleges Exit Poll. The survey was anonymous.

Students also called voters and tried to get people to complete the survey over the phone. In the 2016 election, there were about 60 phones set up at various locations around the BYU campus, according to Magleby. 

“The interesting thing, statistically, is we generally had a much lower reject rate than other exit polls. I think the voters take pity on students,” Magleby said.  

In addition to Magleby’s political science students, statistics and broadcast journalism students were also involved in the poll, particularly on Election Day.

Magleby estimated around a thousand statistics students helped each year. Some joined the political science students conducting phone surveys, others evaluated the numbers.

Broadcast journalism students conducted interviews and created intro packages about the candidates and issues. This footage would roll between the BYUtv election night analysis.

“These three very disparate disciplines of undergrads in all three cases got involved in original research where their expertise was essential, valued, evident and appreciated,” Magleby said.

Including the other universities’ volunteers, nearly 4,000 students were involved with the Utah Colleges Exit Poll during the 2016 presidential election.

Magleby said seeing students rise to the occasion was immensely gratifying.

“They all knew in many ways they could fail — many ways,” Magleby said. “There was a kind of excitement about that.”

The Utah Colleges Exit Poll never called a candidate incorrectly. Not on the national level or the local level. In a few instances, they were off a few percentages, Magleby said, but the students always learned from where they went off.

“They would go and study it for the rest of the semester, and that is what they loved. That’s what they had for breakfast, looking at sampling numbers,” he said.

The success of the Utah Colleges Exit Poll happened over and over again — the same gratifying results and grueling preparation, Magleby recounted. Students would graduate, a new election would arise and he’d have to find new team leaders.

Magleby said each student typically came out of each shift with about three or four meaningful conversations with voters who really changed the way they thought about voters and survey research.

“I don’t think students who were a part of this class will ever see elections, voting, democracy and live television the same way,” he said.

The reporting done from the BYUtv studio on Election Day was orchestrated by Magleby’s political science students.

Magleby said one year he had a student who nearly fell off the raised dais on live TV. When he asked her a question, the student swiveled a bit too abruptly in her chair, which was enough to force the wheel off the platform.

He reached out and silently caught the chair by the arm, while she kept her composure and answered the question. Simultaneously people were heaving the chair just off camera back up onto the dais, Magleby said.

They never pretended they could turn a political science student into a polished broadcaster, Magleby said. Yet the students rose to the occasion and always had interesting things to say.

“It was striking to me over the years how large an audience it (the live broadcast) had,” he said.  

Magleby credited BYUtv for always being willing to learn and help build upon the exit poll. Every election, BYUtv gave up three hours or more of prime-time TV to a group of college students and a few professors. Sometimes they would be rolling well after midnight, he said. 

About the Utah Colleges Exit Poll’s retirement, Magleby said there was a great cost to conducting it every two years. Raising money was difficult and required a lot of time.

The poll got longer each year because the students always had more questions. The voting by mail system also made things more difficult. Running the phones in addition to the postcard survey more than doubled the cost, according to Magleby.

“With KBYU (now BYUtv) deciding not to continue with it, we really didn’t have a home that was willing to do it the way we had done it,” Magleby said, adding that there was no other station in the state that would allow something like the Utah Colleges Exit Poll to cover so much of its airtime.

Although several commercial stations approached Magleby about potentially taking it over, he said the thought made him uncomfortable.

Magleby said, additionally, faculty need to weigh the time costs against the other responsibilities of their jobs.

“I was just crazy enough as an associate professor to not worry about that. And in retrospect, I probably should have,” he said. “I think people see the utility of it, but for them personally it is just too intense.”

Magleby said he hopes there will be something to replace it, but he doubts it will be quite on the scale of the Utah Colleges Exit Poll.

“This was highly visible and, therefore, scary,” he said.   

Following midterms, The Daily Universe will be releasing several other stories including coverage on the election between Ben McAdams and Mia Love, general Utah election results, a look at voter preferences and turnout based off of age range along with other stories to be determined.

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