Exit poll data not enough in race

The seesaw nature of Tuesday’s election returns had network newsies and Netizens in wonk heaven throughout the evening.

TV anchors and analysts did their best to sound authoritative on a night when nobody knew which Presidential candidate would graduate summa cum laude from the Electoral College. At the same time, the close race made early predictions and punditry all but futile.

In past years, exit-poll data has let journos provide strong hints about which candidate had won, long before the actual polls had closed; this time, such data wasn’t enough. Time and again, the mantra was: This race is too close to call.

“It’s cardiac-arrest time in this Presidential campaign,” said a flummoxed Dan Rather, more than 90 minutes after most polls on the East Coast had closed (at 5 p.m. PDT.)

CNN’s Jeff Greenfield noted that the last time newsies were so in the dark was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter wasn’t crowned president until well past 11:30 PDT.

This being the first Presidential election of the Internet Age, television wasn’t the lone source of up-to-the-minute information.

Countless Web sites, backed by the major media organizations and indie groups, featured fancy graphics, interactive electoral college maps and charts — but, like its TV counterpart, CNN.com proved to be the Internet news leader of the night.

CBS.com successfully updated its electoral map every 90 seconds, but some sites couldn’t update their coverage due to the overwhelming traffic numbers that shut down some dot-coms, including MSNBC.com, periodically throughout the night.

But, despite the high-tech advances, the most fascinating moment of the evening came when Tim Russert of NBC whipped out a decidedly low-tech erase board to make sense of the unfolding race for electoral college votes, and what each candidate would have to accomplish to win.

Florida flap

ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox News Channel had egg on their face at around 7 p.m. as hard data forced them to retract, at least temporarily, their previous prediction that Florida had gone Gore. Suddenly, electoral college counts were all over the (electoral) map.

It was the first time network news mavens could remember a case when the major networks had retracted a call. News insiders blamed the snafu on Voter News Service, the co-op that collects exit poll data.

NBC and MSNBC waited around 20 minutes longer than the other webs before taking back Florida. A spokeswoman said that, just as the Peacock was being cautious in calling races, “We want to be cautious in retracting calls.” The dot-coms reacted in kind, taking Florida away from Gore after the TV networks decided they would wait until all the votes were counted.

After the Florida callback, networks seemed to slow down predictions, not wanting to make another mistake.

“This could be a long, strange night — indeed, longer and stranger than we expected,” MSNBC’s Brian Williams said as the cabler took back its Florida call.

You almost needed a major in mathematics to keep up with much of the coverage Tuesday. As the results rolled in, analysts spun the numbers every which way to show how either Bush or Gore could still win the race.

Gore’s lead was artificially low through much of the night since nets, adhering to an informal agreement, couldn’t call the Golden State until polls closed at 8 p.m. — even though early exit poll data available to the news media (but not viewers) showed California a lock for Gore.

Internet archives

CBS.com was among several sites able to archive much of its Internet video footage, enabling Netizens to view George Bush and Al Gore cast their votes in Texas and Tennessee.

Still, streaming video proved a major disappointment on other Web sites, with live broadcasts appearing too blurry to watch or not uploading at all.

High-speed Internet users were able to turn computer monitors into TV screens watching NBC and ABC’s broadcasts, simultaneously online, thanks to RealNetworks’ vastly improved and watchable streaming-video technology.

The pre-election hubbub that surrounded Matt Drudge’s releasing early exit poll data on DrudgeReport.com was largely a fizzle: It was nearly impossible to log onto the site during Election Day.

However, less well-known sites took the lead in reporting the Voter News Service numbers, including Lucianne.com (the home page of Linda Tripp confidante Lucianne Goldberg), Chi-based political site RealClearPolitics.com and NewsSynthesis.com.

Each started reporting exit poll data in the early afternoon, and continued with updates throughout the time when CNN and MSNBC starting posting the info after polls closed in east coast states.

Netizens logging onto MTV.com were sent directly to CBS.com’s election coverage, signaling that the Viacom/CBS marriage is well under way.

On a more playful front, MSNBC and CNN scored with games that allowed users to predict the outcome of the Presidential race by creating their own electoral college tally of states for each candidate.

Although the MSNBC “Electoral College Chess” was more comprehensive by offering facts on the voting history of each state, CNN’s game gave an option for users to compare their guesses side by side as the real results from the states rolled in.

Rather, always worth at least a half-dozen eccentric phrases on Election Night, didn’t disappoint. At one point, he described Bush’s lead as “shakier than cafeteria Jell-O”; later, he noted the race was so tight, “You can’t get a cigarette paper between them.”

The all-news cablers were particularly useful to viewers more interested in the national race than in local contests. When the major webs cut to local stations for regional results, the cable guys were still yakking about Gore vs. Bush.

In past races, some politicos had theorized that networks calling the race early caused West Coast voters to stay home, figuring their votes were meaningless. But Tuesday night, former Clinton aide Mike McCurry told CNN that the nail-biter nature of the race “is surely driving up turnout in the West.”

(Ann Donahue, Melissa Grego and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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