Networks May Call Race by 8 Eastern
The television networks and some major websites may well call the election for Barack Obama before people in California even get off work.
At least one broadcast network and one Web site said Monday that they could foresee signaling to viewers early Tuesday evening which candidate appeared to have won the presidency, despite the unreliability of some early exit polls in the last presidential election.
A senior vice president of CBS News, Paul Friedman, said the prospects for Barack Obama or John McCain meeting the minimum threshold of electoral votes could be clear as soon as 8 p.m. — before polls in even New York and Rhode Island close, let alone those in Texas and California. At such a moment, determined from a combination of polling data and samples of actual votes, the network could share its preliminary projection with viewers, Mr. Friedman said. “We could know Virginia at 7,” he said. “We could know Indiana before 8. We could know Florida at 8. We could know Pennsylvania at 8. We could know the whole story of the election with those results. We can’t be in this position of hiding our heads in the sand when the story is obvious.”
Similarly, the editor of the Web site Slate, David Plotz, said in an e-mail message that “if Obama is winning heavily,” he could see calling the race “sometime between 8 and 9.” “Our readers are not stupid, and we shouldn’t engage in a weird Kabuki drama that pretends McCain could win California and thus the presidency,” Mr. Plotz wrote. “We will call it when a sensible person — not a TV news anchor who has to engage in a silly pretense about West Coast voters — would call it.”
That’s exactly right. The networks have a strong interest in keeping viewers hooked as late into the evening as possible. At the same time, however, they have a competing interest in not letting their competitors scoop them and at least some journalistic duty to report the facts as they become available.
Given the incredible unreliability of early exit poll results — recall the bizarre results in 2004 which had Kerry with massive leads in Virginia, Florida, and other states Bush would win comfortably — they certainly shouldn’t broadcast those results. When the polls close, though, and they start getting reliable information about the outcomes, they should report what they know.
Look, it’s not ideal to have either pre-election polls, exit polls, or the results in East Coast states influencing the behavior of voters and potential voters. But we live in a free society and in a technological age that makes information available quickly.
We’re a huge country with people living in six time zones. The only palatable way to end the annoyance of having the press influence voting out West is to hold elections over a weekend and stop voting at a synchronized time. Or do away with in-person voting altogether and have everyone vote absentee. That may well happen — we’re gradually trending that way — for other reasons.
Of course, the networks’ dream is for McCain to win Virginia, Ohio, and Florida and have Pennsylvania too close to call well into the night. Come to think of it, I’d be perfectly happy with that as well.
As an aside, Nate Silver has a good hour-by-hour guide to election night, noting poll closing times and what indicators to watch for. I agree that Indiana and Virginia will be the early bellweathers, although I just don’t see a road to victory for McCain that doesn’t go through Pennsylvania.