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Thursday, May 08, 2008
The other night, one of the networks "called" Indiana for Hillary Clinton very early on, while the other networks decided to wait until later in the night. Hillary Clinton ended up winning in a close vote, but the decision not to "call" the race early looked good in light of the fact that Obama closed the deficit late in the count as results came in from Gary, Indiana, from voters who presumably knew Obama from Chicago politics and overwhelmingly voted for him.

But that raises the question of why networks "call" races at all. In an election, after all, there are a certain number of votes, they are counted, and some prize is awarded based on the result of the count. (In Democratic primaries, in fact, the total vote counts of states are actually less relevant than the media would have you believe-- the delegates are allocated according to complex formulae, sometimes according to congressional district, sometimes proportionally, sometimes in a sort of hybrid.)

Leaving the parenthetical point aside, the state is "won" by the candidate who receives the most votes. The votes are counted and the tallies are announced. But networks "call" states based not on those tallies (or not solely on those tallies), but based on "exit polls", statistical samples of voters (which, it might be noted, have not been particularly accurate in the last few election cycles).

Why, exactly, do we need this? Who decided it was a news story what a sample of voters who were polled decided? This is an especially strange type of "news" considering that news organizations do not generally release the actual results of the exit polls (perhaps because they don't want to call our attention to how inaccurate they are). Indeed, the media consortium that conducts exit polls has gone to greater and greater lengths each election cycle to prevent us from knowing the exit poll results. (Of course, these attempts have been largely ineffectual, but that hasn't stopped them from trying.)

So, it is considered big news-- indeed, bigger than the actual vote counts, given the amount of hoopla the networks surround their projections with-- that the network has used a poll that we cannot see the results of to predict what candidate will, in a few hours, turn out to have more votes.

Of course, the obvious reason they do this is because waiting for electoral results would require that networks stay on late into the night. The projections, therefore, allow the network to get the news coverage off the air and get back to regular sponsored programming. All the better to make money.

This would be harmless enough if we were talking about something like "American Idol". But elections matter. And network projections matter. Exhibit A for this is 2000, when the networks first projected Florida for Gore, and then reversed and projected for Bush (and with that second projection, further projected that Bush had won the election). By the time they withdrew their projections, the networks had implanted in millions of Americans the idea that Bush had won the election and Gore was trying to overturn the result.

I don't see much that can be done about this. The networks aren't going to change their ways. But we viewers can and should ignore network projections. Let them count the actual votes. Sure, maybe we won't know who won the election until breakfast. Is that really such a big deal? Are we that impatient?


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