Following the Florida 2000 election debacle, the TV networks vowed—as they periodically do—never again to declare a victor in statewide races before most voting precincts close. They make this promise because they've been mau-maued into submission by politicians and good-government types who believe projections will depress voter turnout and even change the course of elections.
The networks could fight the politicians on First Amendment principles, arguing that it's insane to suppress newsworthy information. But they don't because they're afraid that the politicians will 1) make good on their threats to pass laws banning early projections; or 2) retaliate by revoking the networks' broadcast licenses. There's a third reason media organizations are not supposed to cite exit-poll data early: Because the numbers are usually produced by a consortium or by an outside firm, everybody with official access to them promises not to break the prearranged embargo time, which is usually when the polls close.
But if the networks are cowards, at least they're deceitful cowards, perpetually telegraphing the winners well before closing time, if you listen closely. The coverage of yesterday's California election illustrates their duplicity perfectly, with NBC and the Fox News Channel playing the most laughable peek-a-boo with the data before the polls closed at 11 p.m. ET. (Journalists were circulating the official exit-poll numbers during the day via e-mail, and the Drudge Report posted them for all to see before the polls closed. For the legal brouhaha fomented in 2000 when this column published exit-poll numbers during the presidential primaries, see this piece.)
Dan Rather's hint of a Schwarzenegger victory was as broad as a West Texas sandstorm when he said on the 6:30 p.m. ET CBS Evening News:
With voting still under way in the California governor recall election, CBS News exit polls, for whatever, if anything, they may be worth, now indicate many voters made up their minds weeks ago. … If [Gov. Gray Davis] is recalled, there are widespread expectations—again, for whatever they may be worth—that Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger would replace Davis.
The dead giveaways, of course, are the implication that the Los Angeles Times' last-minute groper coverage had not moved public opinion and Rather's qualified reference to an unsourced but "widespread expectation" that Arnold would replace Gray.
On CNBC's 7 p.m. The News With Brian Williams, Brian Williams called in colleague John Seigenthaler to analyze the "first wave of that exit polling … now in hand." Said Williams with a straight face, "And John, of course, we're duty-bound not to indicate anything else we know concerning the horse race of it all. But we can report certain trends and beliefs, correct?"
"That's exactly right," said Seigenthaler, who said the network wouldn't "reveal any exit-poll data on how people voted on the recall" until the polls closed. But Seigenthaler was all too happy to discuss exit-poll data that didn't include the question, Hey, stupid, who did you vote for today? One exit-poll question asked voters what they thought of Davis as governor. "Nearly three-quarters of California voters, 73 percent, say they disapprove of the governor's job performance," Seigenthaler said.
If 73 percent disapproved of Davis, how on earth could that majority not vote for recall and not elect Schwarzenegger? Later in the broadcast, Seigenthaler cited exit-poll data to say, "Among those who voted in person today, a whopping 69 percent say they decided over a month ago." So, again, the implication is that the Los Angeles Times exposé of Schwarzenegger had no colossal impact on the race.
MSNBC—CNBC's sister network—flogged the "heil! Schwarzenegger" numbers on Hardball, Chris Matthews' early evening program. About an hour before the polls closed, Matthews gave the obligatory disclaimer: "We're not going to character[ize] the results [of the exit polls] until after the polls have closed." Natalie Morales contradicted Matthews by reporting that only 25 percent of the exit-polled approved of Davis' signature on the illegal immigrants drivers license bill. About 25 minutes before the polls closed, Morales all but gave the election to Schwarzenegger, reporting, "While men favored Arnold [over Bustamante] by 53 to 43 percent, the Terminator held his own among women, too, an even 47 percent split."
In the 6 p.m. time slot, Fox Special Report With Brit Hume gave similarly predictive data away with a dispatch from Tony Snow. Snow shared the previously cited numbers attached to Davis' poor job rating, Schwarzenegger's high favorable rating, and Bustamante's low rating, allowing viewers to connect the election's dots.
Fox correspondent Adam Housley reached outside the exit-poll data assembled by Edison Media Research (for ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, and other media subscribers but apparently not CBS) to tap the Schwarzenegger campaign's research findings. Speaking on Hannity & Colmes before the polls closed, Housley said a Schwarzenegger exit poll showed 57 percent voting for recall and 46 percent to 47 percent voting for Schwarzenegger. By citing numbers not collected by Edison, Housley did a tricky end-run around the self-censoring agreement Edison subscribers agree to observe. (Schwarzenegger won 48.5 percent of the vote, so the numbers look pretty good in retrospect.)
The impact of the numbers wasn't lost on Sean Hannity, who said, "If you listen to Adam Housley's report, as I just did, and he's looking at the Schwarzenegger exit polls and certainly, the polls leading up to today, it shows that it's not going to be a very good day for Gray Davis, nor is it going to be a good day for Cruz Bustamante. And Arnold Schwarzenegger will be the next governor." Gov. Arnold, anybody?
CNN kept more kosher than the other networks, talking all night about the exit numbers in the most abstract way. But just minutes before the polls closed, Newsnight'sAaron Brown surrendered to temptation by citing a headline from the early edition of the next day's New York Times.
"I guess I'll mention this," said the naughty Aaron, triumphing over the good Aaron. "What the heck: 'Voter Survey Points to Recall and Schwarzenegger.' That's the New York Times' take on the exit polls they're receiving. But we haven't looked on ours, or at least unsealed the envelope."
My favorite exit poll number is 7. What's yours? Send e-mail to email@example.com.