Racing to be Last

The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, New York Times and USA Today all ran stories yesterday or today describing the major networks’ plans for this evening.

Their main plan seems to be to avoid making fools of themselves and deceiving tens of millions of voters, as they did on election night four years ago.

So what you can look for tonight (if the networks remain true to their vows) is caution — fretful, uneasy caution, and long periods of anchors and reporters killing time.

As the Journal noted yesterday, in November 2000, after both broadcast and cable networks declared Al Gore the winner in Florida, a bleary Tom Brokaw went on the air at 5 a.m. to tell viewers, “I not only have egg on my face, I have an entire omelet all over my suit.”

Since then, of course, the nets have revamped the way they collect and analyze polling data — and to keep their on-air hotshots from jumping the gun, some will be blocking their news desks from even watching rival shows.

This time, the nets hope to turn traditional journalistic values on their head. “The real race is to get it right, not to be first,” NBC News vice president Bill Wheatley told the Journal. Not to be outdone in the Slow But Sure stakes, Linda Mason, CBS News vice president tells the Los Angeles Times that “We’re all going to be vying to be last.” And Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, told the Times, “I don’t care if we’re last. We’re not going to get it wrong. Florida taught us painful lessons.”

Absent tonight will be Voter News Service, the now-defunct consortium that handled exit polls, vote tabulations and projections four years ago. VNS has been replaced by the National Election Pool, a new consortium of CBS, Fox, ABC, NBC, CNN, and the Associated Press.

Whether NEP will produce more accurate results based on exit polls than VNS did, however, remains an open question. As the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg writes this morning, “… for all the hoopla, a crop of new complications has arisen this year that leave room for error, and at the very least could give the networks difficulty in declaring a winner tonight.” With several states too close to call, recounts are likely. And with more people voting early and by mail, even exit polls using more sophisticated techniques are liable to be off base. Add in hundreds of thousands of voters using provisional ballots which may not be counted for days, and which lawyers may challenge, and you have a nightmare for anyone still itching to call the race before all votes are counted.

Once the polls close, NEP will collect actual returns from more than 3,000 sample precincts in the 50 states — a safer bet than any exit poll. Meantime, the Journal says, AP has dispatched 5,000 stringers to county election sites who will tabulate results as they become available.

Our advice — load up on the chips and beer, and channel-surf a lot, keeping alert for the words “Associated Press” to pop up on your TV monitor. Why? Unlike the networks themselves, AP restricts its reports to actual vote counts.

Still, there’s every chance that there will be no projected (or actual) winner by the time most viewers go to bed. For those with the stamina for an all-nighter, the Los Angeles Times reports, all the nets say they will stay on the air until a winner has been declared — or until it’s clear that there are vote-count disputes that will take days to sort out.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.