Marty Plissner, the longtime political director of CBS News, died Thursday of lung cancer. He was 87.
Plissner is credited with, a half-century ago, coining the phrase “too close to call,” heard often ever since during tight vote counts.
He was known for his extensive political knowledge and his range of political contacts, establishing himself by one appraisal as the gold standard for several generations of political journalists.
Plissner was a pioneer of exit polls and was known to say that members of Congress who had pushed to limit them would nonetheless contact him on primary days seeking information on what they revealed.
Born in Brooklyn, Plissner attended Yale and served in the Navy during WWII.
After graduation and stints at ABC and NBC, he joined CBS News in 1964. He participated in covering the 1964 presidential race as well as the next eight. He retired in 1997 as senior political director.
Plissner’s coinage of “too close to call” was noted in 1996 by New York Times language columnist William Safire. He quoted Plissner as explaining that, in vote-sampling techniques that pre-dated exit polling, “When we had a situation in which all the votes were reported but there was no clear winner, we called that election ‘too close to call.'”
He wrote about that era in his 1999 book, “The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.”
The three TV networks around in 1964 created the modern New Hampshire primary and went “overboard” in their coverage, Plissner said in the book. “That year, the network news divisions for their own purposes converted this once marginal political event, involving barely 1 percent of the country’s voters, into a unique showcase and proving ground for aspiring presidents. … In that era, it never occurred to us that there was anything shameful about aggressive coverage of the horse race.”
Plissner, who lived in Washington, is survived by his wife, Susan Morrison; two daughters; and a son from his first marriage.