By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 10/27/2004 7:44:56 PM ET 2004-10-27T23:44:56

On Election Night we will know why people voted the way they did. But for now there's a lot of confusion out there. In Florida, for example, how can one poll have President Bush up by eight points and another have Sen. John Kerry up by three? 

How can so many different polls say so many different things? Sheldon Gawiser is the Director of Elections for NBC News. He says in a race this unpredictable, its no wonder the polls are, too.

"I don't think any of us are in a situation where we really know what's going to happen on Tuesday as of yet," says Gawiser. "Normally an election does break, but so far, this one hasn't broken in either direction."

How good are polls at anticipating election results? Are there people who aren't being counted? What voter opinions are the pollsters missing? Who are these so-called “likely voters” and how are they going to break?

"Typically, the polls are more consistent in showing a Republican advantage as we move to likely voters, but in this election, with a great deal of enthusiasm for Sen. Kerry, some polls are actually showing him getting an advantage on a likely voter base," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People.

Polling that shows a significant lead for any one side can both help and hurt the candidate. It can help by becoming self-fulfilling: voters like going with a winner. It can hurt if people stay home, thinking their vote isn't needed if their candidate has a healthy lead.

"If there's an overwhelming lead in an election, that could happen, but in an election this close, it's not too likely," says NBC's Gawiser.

A big wild-card next Tuesday will be the big number of young, first-time, or newly-registered voters. By and large they did not turn out in big numbers last time. Pollsters are trying to find out is the youth vote is for real and if it will go Democratic, as some polls predict?

"We haven't seen all that much certainty that the youth vote is going to be overwhelmingly Kerry. In fact, some of our polls show it very close," says Kohut.

While a lot of attention is paid to the head to head race, Bush vs. Kerry, what may be more interesting to follow in the polls on up through Election Night are those so-called battleground states. Within those polls, pay attention to the internal numbers like "is the country headed on the right track or the wrong direction?" and "how firm or soft is the support for President Bush or Sen. Kerry."

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