Election night sweats

Posted: Nov 10, 2004 12:00 AM

 Anyone who is a political junkie -- if you stayed up into the wee hours of Election Night, you qualify -- had a couple of beefs with the national media amidst an otherwise riveting evening.

 First, just who were those so-called polling professionals hired to do the exit polls for the networks? For about six hours on Election Day, the Kerry camp was positively giddy and the Bush folks were forlorn as word spread of exit polls indicating not a Kerry win, but a Kerry landslide. All of those emotions were utterly wasted. Among other things, the expert exit pollsters had oversampled Democrats and women, and when the real vote came in, Kerry was on the short end in one key battleground state after another.

 Anchormen can claim that those rotten numbers never made it on the major airwaves. Some network types tried to blame Web sites like Slate.com and the Drudge Report for spreading this ersatz opinion story. But that doesn't get them off the hook. Who paid for the crummy polls? The major networks did. Journalists have counted on exit polls to elicit a greater sense of accuracy, since they're supposed to reflect the actual votes Americans have cast, not just some phoned-in opinion with no impact. After the exit-poll debacles of 2000, the onus was on them to get it somewhere close to right, and they assured us, this time they would. It's time to scrap them altogether.

 Second, what sort of political "science" is it to withhold projections overnight because some frantic Democrats lobbied you into submission? Republican political junkies were yelling at the TV, demanding to know why the networks were so quick to call Pennsylvania for Kerry (Kerry's final margin: about 127,000), but couldn't pull the trigger on Ohio (Bush's final margin: about 127,000).

 The New York Times told the story. At 12:41 a.m., Fox News declared that Ohio was a win for Bush. "Howard Wolfson, a (Kerry) strategist, burst into the 'boiler room' in Washington where the brain trust was huddled and said, 'we have 30 seconds' to stop the other networks from following suit." The Kerry camp dialed furiously and begged the networks to hold any more projections. The Bush camp called to make sure the networks that called Ohio would not backslide based on Kerry lobbying.

 From then on, only Fox and the NBC-MSNBC combo had called Ohio, but refused to project victory in any other Bush state, especially ripe and ready Nevada. ABC, CBS and CNN all pretended Ohio had not been decided, even with nearly 100 percent of precincts reporting. Millions of Americans woke up with a sick feeling: Is there a crisis again?

 Everyone, perhaps intimidated by the vision of another Michael Moore documentary accusing them of calling victory prematurely, put the science aside and waited for the politicians to make a move. When John Kerry called the White House to concede, suddenly the anchors mysteriously found the secret math in the trashcan that would allow them to call Ohio and/or Nevada. This is the very definition of pack journalism: the TV news elite huddled in a mob, politically calculating, wanting less to get the call right than to avoid the wrath of angry liberals stuck on the losing end of the results again.

 In an interview with David Letterman, Tom Brokaw admitted, "The White House was very eager for us to call one of those states. As long as John Kerry and company were contesting Ohio, I was determined not to do that. We were confident in our judgment about Ohio, but we don't declare presidential winners."

 That's ridiculous. Tom Brokaw is concluding a long career doing precisely that. Can you imagine Brokaw struggling to call Reagan's victory in 1984? He certainly didn't shrink from declaring Bill Clinton the victor twice. But since 2000, the media elite have been sensitized to the idea that victory declarations foreclose options for Democrats and their band of barristers.

 Brokaw added that he understood the Kerry people "were going to go back and contest the provisional ballots, thinking that they could put together a combination in the upper Midwest and maybe find a winning formula there." Declaring victory would have made the Democrat lawyering look desperate, so the liberal media put the race in suspended animation until Kerry threw in the towel.

 On some level, it's poetically appropriate that the presidential campaign would end where it began, with the big network stars betraying their great sensitivity to the needs of the candidate now back at Beacon Hill, wondering why his perception of victory had no relation to reality.