How Election Night Became a Sit-Com
Op-ed by Rich Noyes, director of the Free Market Project, MRC,
as it appeared in the November 10, 2000 edition of Human Events Online
In a performance that will live in journalistic infamy, television’s most famous news personalities subjected the nation to an emotional, unnecessary and irresponsible rollercoaster ride last Tuesday night.
The farce that unfolded on television on election night revealed that as much as the networks may try to pitch themselves as experienced and professional news organizations, they are anything but.
Early Tuesday evening, Dan Rather invited viewers to "join CBS News for what the record shows over the years has been the most accurate presidential election night coverage."
Later, in primetime, Rather assured his audience, "if we say somebody’s carried the state, you can take that to the bank."
Hours later, retracting CBS’s original projection that Al Gore would carry the state of Florida, Rather reversed himself. "Clearly, we were wrong to call it as early as we did. . . . To err is human, but to really foul up requires a computer."
How did it happen?
The networks largely base their election night projections on exit polling data supplied to them by the Voter News Service (VNS), a consortium funded by the networks and the Associated Press. Over the past several years, VNS data has yielded hundreds of correct election projections, as well as a few failures.
Four years ago, in New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race, the networks used VNS data to declare Democratic challenger Dick Swett the victor over Republican incumbent Bob Smith. But the actual final vote tally made Smith the winner.
Four years before that, the networks used VNS data to declare that Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler had been reelected in Georgia over challenger Paul Coverdell. Again, the actual votes made Coverdell the winner.
Although they make a convenient target–or, scapegoat–the anonymous statisticians at VNS are not really the bad guys. They merely supply the raw polling data. It’s the networks’ on-staff political experts who make the networks’ final calls.
‘Roadblock the Size of a Boulder’
If the race is close, wisdom would suggest that they wait for actual votes to come in to confirm the polling trends. But they don’t always do that. Also, the networks’ projections models aren’t identical, nor is the expertise of their so-called experts–especially when it comes to local voting patterns.
According to the networks, the decision to call Florida for Gore was based on two factors: exit polls indicating a narrow Gore lead, and initial returns that may have been incorrectly entered into the networks’ databases, causing their computer models to anticipate a larger Gore vote than was ultimately recorded.
Worse–for George W. Bush–the first network calls came at approximately 7:50 p.m. EST, potentially discouraging voters in the predominantly Republican panhandle of Florida that juts into the Central Time zone and where polls weren’t due to close until 8:00 p.m. EST (7 CST).
For weeks, the networks had trumpeted Florida as the key to the election. So it was predictable that snatching it from Bush at such an early hour would demoralize his supporters–even as talking heads began hinting that his overall defeat was imminent.
"This is a roadblock the size of a boulder to George W. Bush’s path to the White House," CNN’s Jeff Greenfield declared.
"This is not a happy moment for the Bush campaign," seconded anchor Judy Woodruff.
Yet, over the next couple of hours, the actual vote count showed a Bush lead in Florida that stood at approximately 140,000 by 10:00 p.m. So, when the Bush campaign challenged the projection, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw quizzed CNN analyst Bill Schneider: "Generally, networks do not call unless they have a pretty high degree of assurance, correct?"
"That is correct," replied Schneider. "We have a pretty high degree of assurance that Florida and Pennsylvania have gone for Al Gore." Yet only moments later, Shaw announced that CNN was retracting its projection and declaring the race in Florida too close to call.
"Do you like your crow well done?" Shaw asked his colleagues.
Similarly switches were made about that time at all the other networks.
After this initial debacle in projecting Florida, you would have thought the networks would be more careful for the rest of the night. You would have thought this would be especially true because, as the night wore on, it became clear that Florida’s vote would determine the outcome of the entire election.
By about 1:45 a.m., CNN’s electoral count stood at 246 for Bush, 242 for Gore. The only remaining state with enough votes to put either man over the top was Florida, and Bush’s lead in the state was shrinking steadily.
"Judy, the lead has been cut to about 20,000," explained former ABC News Political Director Hal Bruno, now a CNN analyst, "and what is outstanding is basically Democratic territory along the gold coast. . . . Florida has gotten so close now that there’s just absolutely no way of counting it until probably every last vote is in."
Bruno was exactly right. But, then, only a half-hour later, all of the networks declared that Florida would be won by Bush, making him the next President.
"Unless there is a terrible calamity, George W. Bush, by our projection, is going to be the next president of the United States," declared ABC’s Peter Jennings.
This time the networks based their projection on an analysis of actual returns–well over 90% of the actual returns had been counted by this point–but they were still premature.
By 3:30 a.m., the vote count in Florida had tightened to a differential of a few hundred votes–with Bush still leading. But Gore had a narrow lead in the national popular vote count.
Then once again, the networks were forced by brutal arithmetic to jointly withdraw their unanimous prediction of a Florida winner.
After the second blundered call, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw acknowledged, "not only do we have egg on our face, we have the whole omelet." On CBS at about 4:00 a.m., Rather announced that Florida was once again undecided. "Too much confusion down there, race is tightened down too close, talk of recounts all over the place, talk of quote ‘discrepancies’ quote unquote by one Dade County official. And it’s just confused and chaotic situation in terms of getting the actual vote count."
As I am writing this on November 9, officials in Florida are still in the midst of a legally mandated automatic recount. We still do not have a certified winner–more than 24 hours after every U.S. television network put its reputation on the line by calling one.
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