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.

Katie Couric is leading CBS News' election coverage. John Filo/CBS News

Katie Couric is leading CBS News’ election coverage. John Filo/CBS News

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.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Media, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I don’t believe it.

    I don’t see how they can have enough real results to project an actual winner by 8pm Eastern, and even if they could, I can’t help but think the networks wouldn’t do it-if for no other reason than to keep the drama alive.

    Not to mention they got burned badly by exit polls in 2000 and 2004.

  2. sam says:

    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.

    Right. Orin Kerr over at the Volokh Conspiracy dug up this tidbit from a Congressional Research Service Report (2001):

    Elections for all federal elected officials are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years . . . ; presidential elections are held in every year divisible by four. Congress selected this day in 1845 (5 Stat. 721); previously, states held elections on different days between September and November, a practice that sometimes led to multiple voting across state lines, and other fraudulent practices.

    By tradition, November was chosen because the harvest was in, and farmers were able to take the time needed to vote. Tuesday was selected because it gave a full day’s travel between Sunday, which was widely observed as a strict day of rest, and election day. [Footnote: In most rural areas, the only polling place was at the county seat, frequently a journey of many miles on foot or horseback.] Travel was also easier throughout the north during November, before winter had set in.

    The Founders, I’m reasonably certain, did not envision a country spanning six time zones with (almost) instantaneous communications. Thus, technology can outrun and trump constitutional intent. It might be interesting, though, to examine (speculate on) reasons why some politicians might not want to change the current electoral scheme.

  3. Ottovbvs says:

    Guys, watch two results. If Obama wins VA and PA it’s over. If Obama wins PA and loses VA it’s probably over. If McCain wins PA it’s going to be a long night. Personally I think the chances of him winning PA are zilch but I’m just bloviating. All the polls have converged, oh what a surprise, and at the national level they show this to be a 7-8 point race, none of them, not one, have the O man at below 50. Unless every single one of them is totally incompetent the O man has a 90%+ chance of winning. You choose.

  4. Ottovbvs is right: early states, PA in particular, will clearly signal the direction we are going. It is entirely possible that fairly early in the evening that we will know where we are headed, unlike the last two cycles. Indeed, tonight is more likely to be like 1996, when we had a pretty good idea early in the evening.

    McCain literally has only a handful (or less) of possible ways to win, and if he doesn’t start down one of those paths early in the evening–well before the West Coast is finished voting, then we will know who the winner will be.

    What that means about when the nets will actually pull out the presidential computer graphics is another matter.

    And, to echo something James noted, I really wish we would go to weekend voting.

  5. davod says:

    Anything which has the potential to reduce turnout is disconcerting. Especially now that the popular vote has taken on such importance.

    Mind you. There are jurisdictions where they stop counting when it is clear they have a winner. So I find it difficult to understand how anyone can come up with a valid number for the popular vote.

  6. R. Kevin Hill says:

    No “A” in “bellwethers.”

  7. Floyd says:

    “”Networks May Call Race by 8 Eastern””

    Does ANYBODY think they haven’t already??

  8. David says:

    It would be totally irresponsible for the networks to call the election by 8pm considering that most of the state polls would have just closed and it would basically mean depending on exit polls. If they did that – and then found out later that those polls are not correct – i.e. they call VA for Obama when McCain really takes it or worse yet PA, FL or OH – then the media will basically be responsible for a completely botched election – especially if either a)Republicans go home in droves when their guy was winning and thus cost McCain the votes he needs in NM, AZ, CO and elsewhere or b) cost Obama the election when his supporters go out partying instead of voting – and then find out later that the votes they didnt cast in AZ, CO and NM and NV cost him an election he should have won.

    At the very least they should wait till its 10pm EST and have all but the West Coast finished up so that only a few states woudl be affected by a wrong call.

  9. Brett says:

    I agree. We ought to switch over to the Oregon voting system – everybody votes by mail. None of this “wait for the exit polls!” crap; you just set the deadline for November 4 to have your ballot mailed in, then release the results at midnight.

  10. Mike Green says:

    Journalistic duty to report the facts? When was the last time the journalists felt a duty to report the facts? I think I am going to puke! I so disrespect the field of journalism any more. I think the media should be barred from reporting ANY results from the election until the polls are closed in EVERY state. The 2000 election should have taught us something…but, based on the arrogant BS in the article above, it is apparent that it did not.

  11. Bob Vaught says:

    I missed it. Tell us again, CBS (and Mr. Joyner), the specific benefit of announcing the supposed “outcome” while 80% of the country is still voting?

    Media idiots. And they don’t understand why they’re held in such low esteem by the American public? Gotta wonder where most of these clowns got their diplomas, or whether they ever took a course in ethics. Guarantee you they’d never, ever cut it in a field like science, engineering, or medicine where you’re actually required to think logically and be objective.

  12. David says:

    What I love is that they are setting themselves up for another 2000 election – they called Florida while the polls were still open – leaving open forever the issue of whether or not either a)more Bush votes would have been cast and thus no recount agony for over a month or b) enough Gore votes would have been cast to give him the election when the recount happened

  13. Floyd says:

    Why would that not open the door to absolute vote fraud?
    Traditionally, electioneering at a polling place has been illegal. Now you advocate moving the polling place directly to the rally, where you can sell your franchise for a T-shirt.
    I guess you might think this is ok? Perhaps it is a fitting end to Mankind’s last great hope.
    What are the safeguards in place to prevent outright fraud, extortion,intimidation, bribery or theft?

  14. Michael says:

    And, to echo something James noted, I really wish we would go to weekend voting.

    Why not just make the first Tuesday in November a national holiday? More people work on Saturday than on Thanksgiving.

  15. just me says:

    I am not real keen on the idea of voting by mail. As much as the convienience might appeal, I just think there is too much potential for fraud-I don’t know for sure if somebody may have stolen my ballot and once I drop my ballot in the mail, how do I know it got to the right place?

    Not to mention I kind of like going to the polls to make it official, but then I live in a city where voting is quick and easy.