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Election Night: Journalists Race to Make the Right Calls as the World Watches

After the most poll-obsessed, data-driven campaign in memory, the news networks are at last going into the climax of election night. It will likely come as a relief to most of America, but for those in the media, it is a night fraught with journalistic risk.

ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and the Associated Press are sticking with their commitment not to report results of exit-poll information in a particular state until voting has closed there. But there will be a tidal wave of data and anecdotal information flowing in throughout the day, including from a new venture that promises to give a real-time readout of the way things are trending.

This year, a group called VoteCastr has teamed with Slate to provide real-time voter information based not on exit polls but on analytics and turnout tracking. VoteCastr’s editorial director and chief strategist, Sasha Issenberg, says the service is providing information that campaigns can rely on internally. He has called the networks’ embargo on information a “de facto self-imposed gag order,” and says it only makes sense to provide this information in real time.

“We will estimate the total number of votes cast in a state and how we think, based on our survey work, they split across the candidates,” Issenberg says. VoteCastr will stop short of declaring early winners or losers. “We’re leaving election-night calls until the polls close and the votes can be counted,”
he says.

Ever since NBC News, relying on exit-poll data, called the 1980 presidential race for Ronald Reagan at 8:15 pm ET, when polls were still open across the country, the networks have been under scrutiny over when and how they call a particular state for a candidate. After that year, some members of Congress put pressure on the major networks to withhold declaring a winner until the polls have closed, and the networks have ever since adhered to keeping race projections under wraps until that time.

The issue arose again in 2004, when some early exit-poll data leaked online and was published by Drudge Report, giving a great deal of the world the idea that John Kerry was on his way to defeating President George W. Bush. Even many in Kerry’s campaign were convinced that their candidate would win.

Ever since the 2006 midterm elections, the information has been “quarantined” at an “undisclosed location,” as Joe Lenski, the co-founder and executive vice president of Edison Research puts it. His firm conducts the exit-polling information for the six news organizations, called the National Election Pool.

Only a handful of media representatives are allowed to be at the “undisclosed location” as the data comes in, Lenski says, and they have to surrender their communication devices. “No cell phones, laptops, smoke signals, nothing,” he says. The journalists can get their devices back at 5 p.m. ET; even then, the networks have released only exit-poll data about topics such as the makeup of the electorate and voter sentiment toward certain issues.

The networks will begin to make projections only when polls have closed in each state.

But Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president, says, “We are in no rush. There is no race to be first. We will be methodical as we go through the data. It could be a very late night.”

He said that they will not use exit polls to project winners in competitive races, but rely on actual vote totals. The purpose of exit polls is “to get a sense of who voted and how they voted.”

“It’s better to be last and right than first and wrong,” says ABC News’ executive producer of special events and election-night coverage, Marc Burstein. “I don’t care what other websites or other networks are doing. Our Decision Desk [analysts] tell me when News is ready to project a winner. I don’t know what other networks are saying, nor do our anchors. It’s just not part of our equation.”

Everyone wants to avoid what happened in 2000, when Florida was called first for Al Gore, then for George W. Bush. Then everything was thrown into question until the contentious recount could play itself out at the Supreme Court. “We don’t just have egg on our face,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw said at the time. “We have an omelet.”

Four years ago, after Fox News called Ohio for President Obama, which put him over the top of 270 electoral votes, Karl Rove questioned the call. That’s when Megyn Kelly took the cameras to an area off the set, where analysts explained how they had reached their conclusion.

It’s not hard to see some of the same questions and doubts arising this year. “Our aim is to describe for viewers everything that’s happening in a race, even after we call a race,” says Anthony Salvanto, elections director for CBS News. He says the network is deploying “more polls and models and analytics than ever” and, in terms of making a projection, will be transparent about how it reached that conclusion. “We really want people to come away feeling that they were able to watch the race firsthand, and that we report it as we see it.”

What’s been happening in recent cycles is a shift in the way people vote, with weeks of early and absentee voting, which is being estimated at close to 40% this year. Lenski says Edison Research has been conducting telephone surveys of those who have already voted to complement its exit-poll data.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., argues that despite all the data available, the risks of making a wrong call remain. “The main problem is the way in which modern news-gathering is evolving,” says Farnsworth, co-author of “The Nightly News Nightmare: Media Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2008.” “The new challenge is that everyone wants to get the information first, and if you don’t do the due diligence required, you’ll have it first, but you’ll have it wrong, too.”

this election has been unpredictable — just about the only sure thing has been a viewership spike for campaign coverage, in whatever form. That will surely be the case on Election Day, when coverage will be ubiquitous well beyond the news channels.

For example, Showtime is tapping Stephen Colbert for a live show in which he may be able to be a little looser than on the more restrictive environment of CBS’ “Late Show.”

Lifetime is doing a two-and-a-half-hour live installment of “The View.” Executive producer Candi Carter says it was a “no-brainer” to do the special given that the show has been covering the election every day. The special aims to be counter-programming to hard-edged news by presenting an “election-night party” atmosphere with the “View” hosts and celebrity guests. Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline,” will provide news updates throughout the broadcast. “This will give people the best of both worlds,” Carter says.

Election night will also have somewhat of a celebratory atmosphere on the streets of New York, with both candidates throwing parties in the city. Forty years ago, NBC News dazzled election-night coverage by featuring a large electronic map of blue states and red states. This year, as it has in recent cycles, the network will transform Rockefeller Center into “Democracy Plaza,” with its 30 Rock building showered in red, white, and blue lighting. The ice rink will be made into an “augmented reality map” of the U.S.

ABC News will place giant LED screens in Times Square, with “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan in the crowd.

“It’s all part of the storytelling,” Burstein says. “We all get the same data at the same time. The only way we can distinguish ourselves is by what we do with the data.”

Brian Steinberg contributed to this report.

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