As I watched the election returns come in from my apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped around from channel to channel to get the latest news. Like many Americans, my patience has decreased as the number of news channels and web sites has increased over the years. While I know that many of these are owned by a few corporations, I am still lulled into a sense that each of them is competing for my attention.
Just twenty minutes after the polls closed in Wisconsin, the local Fox affiliate announced that Governor Jim Doyle, who was tied in a tough race for reelection, was projected to win a second term in the governor’s mansion. In all fairness to Fox’s Channel 6 in Milwaukee, they were receiving this data from the mother ship, Fox News. However, in talking with a few other people this morning about Doyle’s eventual victory, the only thing we talked about was the announcement of Doyle’s victory with only 1% of the precincts reporting.
Until more than 55% of the precincts were in, Doyle and challenger Mark Green were trading the vote lead back and forth. A few people were curious as to why Fox was so quick to draw the conclusion that Doyle had won, considering no hard and fast facts were available. I had to explain that only six years ago, a similar problem occurred during the tight presidential election between Al Gore and George Bush. NBC News had projected the crucial electoral votes of Florida for Gore, then retracted the projection, and then gave the state to George Bush. We all know what happened with that, so I won’t get into details. But NBC News used exit polling, or polls that are taken outside of voting locations around the country, to draw their projection data for the 2000 election.
Exit polls were also used in the 2004 presidential election, though they told a very different story. In battleground states like Ohio and Wisconsin, John Kerry was receiving higher vote totals than was reflected in the actual balloting. While Jim Doyle did eventually win the Wisconsin gubernatorial election on November 7th, these examples of misguided exit polling and news department jumpiness proved that media consumers shouldn’t trust any projections until 100% of precincts are in. Media outlets take cues from consumers who are seen as thirsty for the most updated information possible mixed with projections that help them draw conclusions about the political process.
However, those who are truly interested in the political process are put off by overzealous networks that are trying to stay ahead of their competition by projecting winners first. The only network that seemed to get it right was CNN, whom did use exit polling but did not announce winners until a significant number of votes were in. There are several simple solutions to the problems of network uneasiness with waiting on information. Consumers of news networks can turn off the television, listen to public radio, and wait for the real numbers to come in. For others, using online resources can be just as effective, with more updated information than television networks. Finally, viewers and political observers need to relax, take the numbers with a grain of salt, and wait until the end of the night to get the cold, hard facts. In this way, they can stick it to the networks and cable news channels who are trying to compete with one another for consumer attention.