One of the great tools in a political pundit’s arsenal is the exit poll; that is, the summary numbers and classifications of race, gender, age and creed that should in and of themselves provide an all-knowing x-ray of the democratic process. The truth is, exit polls are as fallible and intuitive as all other barometers of personal choice and opinion.
Let’s look at the exit polls from California, inarguably the most important prize of the 23 states on Super Tuesday. In these exit polls, conducted by CNN, general trends show that men slightly favored Barack Obama while women supported Hillary Clinton.
Obama was extremely popular with African-American voters (78-percent to 19-percent) while Clinton carried the Latino (69-29) and Asian (75-23) votes by substantial margins. But the polls muddle when overlaid upon themselves – black women voted for Obama (77-percent), but Latino men went for Clinton (65-percent). In a reverse of national numbers, Clinton carried younger voters on the whole but lost young white voters to Obama.
Across the aisle, Republican numbers were even more confusing and paradoxical. Younger voters preferred John McCain – at 71 the oldest candidate in the field.
More oddly, even in “liberal” California, if you were a religious Christian Republican, wouldn’t you feel an affinity for Mike Huckabee, the former minister? Nope. Californians describing themselves as weekly churchgoers went twofold to Romney and McCain over Huck. The Born-Again or Evangelical Christian vote, meanwhile, was nearly an even split among the three.
Bizarre splintering even occurred within a candidate’s own voting pool, as McCain pulled 38-percent who said they were enthusiastic about President Bush while adding an almost equal number (34-percent) who said they were angry with Bush.
Exit polls play to preconceived notions, national trends and stereotypes more viciously than any other aspect of the election process. They allow us to accept easy answers to complicated questions. Most seriously of all, they barely begin to scratch the surface of the ideological depth in this country, a fount so vast that no numbers can begin to explain or quantify who we are and what we believe.