Will Exit Polls Win On Election Night?

It may seem unlikely, but on Tuesday the offices above an East Coast antique store will be the epicenter of American politics.

Joe Lenski will know the election's results before almost anybody, reports CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell. His company, Edison Media Research, gathers the exit poll information used by a consortium of TV networks and the Associated Press to help quickly determine who won and why.

"We will be at 1000 polling locations and we will interview more than 100,000 people," Lenski tells Mitchell.

The process begins with surveys conducted outside polling places.

Three times a day that info is called into headquarters and eventually funneled to organizations like CBS News, where it's dissected by CBS News Director of Surveys Kathleen Frankovic.

"For example, what was the biggest issue on the voters' minds?" says Frankovic. "Were there any major demographic differences in how people voted?"

But in recent years exit polling has been at the center of controversy.

In 2000 bad polling data added to the confusion over who carried Florida. Two years later the same outfit —Voter News Service — had a crippling computer glitch.

Lenski's group took over for 2004 but young pollsters tended to interview young voters, skewing the results. By mid-day, preliminary exit poll data leaked out to the blogosphere, giving the false impression that Senator John Kerry would be President.

"And that is how exit polling got the reputation for having been very wrong when they were a little wrong," says Mark Blumenthal, editor of Pollster.com.

Mark Blumenthal blogs on his website.

"There is a vacuum on elections day in which people are desperate to find out what happened," adds Blumenthal.

Now they'll have to wait even longer. This year exit poll info will be withheld from the consortium until 5 p.m. Eastern time.

"We're going to be extraordinarily careful about what we say about an outcome," says Frankovic.

Lenski's team has also shortened the questionnaire, improved pollster training, and moved them closer to voting areas to improve accuracy.

But predicting election results is an inexact science.

"But we learn year after year and we look at our models and re-evaluate every years," Lenski points out.

It'll be up to the public and polling wonks to pick apart the data in the weeks and months to come.

"You don't do this unless you get excited by looking at data, looking at numbers and information," says CBS' Frankovic. "You learn something new every time."

Another thing that pollsters are learning is that it will not get easier to gather exit poll data. Nearly 20 percent of voters now cast their ballot by mail, and that number will continue to grow.