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Shockwaves reverberated throughout the country at about 4 p.m. on Election Day as, from the initial exit polls, it looked like John Kerry would seize the White House through decisive victories in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Pundits on all the networks explained why Bush was unable to hold on to his states and how Kerry made up ground in the closing weeks.
Less than 24 hours later, Kerry conceded. What did we miss? Where did our exit polls go so wrong?
Though some are calling for an investigation of the polling methodology and technology, there was a much more unique social phenomenon at play. The main reason why this year’s exit polls were so wrong is grounded in what I call the “unadmitted 3 percent.”
After four years of relentless Bush bashing from Hollywood celebrities like Martin Sheen, Rob Reiner, and, even more recently, music industry giants Bruce Springsteen and Eminem, voting for George Bush had become a 21st century societal taboo ranking closely with smoking indoors and leaving one’s cell phone on during a movie.
Ever since Bush’s victory in the controversial 2000 election, admitting one’s support for the president in some circles has led to pariah status or, at the very least, unwanted confrontation. As a result, rather than admit, even to a total stranger, that they voted for Bush, a significant segment of the electorate simply lied to avoid a discussion with the exit pollsters – much in the same way they had been doing with friends and co-workers.
The one thing that was clear throughout the presidential campaign was that we in America had an extremely vocal 30 percent of our population that absolutely hated Bush – a sentiment that had been expressed throughout the president’s first term. This raw hatred for a sitting president by such a large number of Americans was a phenomenon not seen before – certainly not on this level – in the history of the country.
Among undecided voters, however, there were millions of Americans whose attitude about voting for President Bush was summed up by something Jack Nicholson said in “A Few Good Men”: “Deep down in places they don’t want to talk about [they] want me on that line, need me on that line.”
Whether it was social liberals concerned with matters of national security; religious Jews worried about John Kerry’s weak stance on Israel; or Midwestern families who simply at the end of the day did not trust a Northeastern liberal in the White House, the deciding ballots in this election were cast by individuals who voted in a way they felt was correct but were not comfortable enough to admit.
The proof of the “unadmitted 3 percent” theory can be seen from looking at the late afternoon numbers in the Ohio and Florida exit polls. Kerry held leads of 52 to 48 in Ohio and 51 to 48 in Florida. The actual results, however, showed Bush with 51 percent in Ohio and 52 percent in Florida. It was the “unadmitted” individuals – those who were unwilling to publicly go against the societal taboo of voting for George Bush – who were responsible for millions of Americans settling in front of their televisions on Tuesday night fully expecting to watch the coronation of John Kerry.
So, then, it was not the polling technology itself, but rather the taboo of voting for George Bush, that skewed the exit poll numbers. In many ways, this election spoke volumes about the greatness of our democracy, as the deciding votes came from people who felt they were making the right decision if not necessarily the popular one.
The election also clearly demonstrated that it is the quiet, everyday voters in our politically deadlocked country who truly have the power to shift the direction of our nation.
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