At least one broadcast network and one Web site said Monday that they could foresee signaling to viewers early Tuesday evening which candidate appeared likely to win the presidency, despite the unreliability of early exit polls in the last presidential election.
A senior vice president of CBS News, Paul Friedman, said the prospects for Barack Obama or John McCain meeting the minimum threshold of electoral votes could be clear as soon as 8 p.m. — before polls in even New York and Rhode Island close, let alone those in Texas and California. At such a moment — determined from a combination of polling data and samples of actual votes — the network could share its preliminary projection with viewers, Friedman said.
“We could know Virginia at 7,” he said. “We could know Indiana before 8. We could know Florida at 8. We could know Pennsylvania at 8. We could know the whole story of the election with those results. We can’t be in this position of hiding our heads in the sand when the story is obvious.”
Similarly, the editor of Slate, David Plotz, said in an e-mail message that “if Obama is winning heavily,” he could see calling the race “sometime between 8 and 9.”
“Our readers are not stupid, and we shouldn’t engage in a weird Kabuki drama that pretends McCain could win California and thus the presidency,” Plotz wrote. “We will call it when a sensible person — not a TV news anchor who has to engage in a silly pretense about West Coast voters — would call it.”
All the networks (and other news organizations with their own Web sites) were engaging in similar debates on Monday about striking the following balance: not relying too much on early exit poll data — which had suggested, at least early on Election Day in 2004, that John Kerry might be on track to defeat George W. Bush — while not being so cautious as to be beaten to the punch by a competitor who announces an emerging result first.
When asked how Katie Couric, who is leading the network’s coverage, might present the network’s projection to viewers, Friedman said he could imagine her saying, for example, “Given what we know about the results, or the projected results in various states, it’s beginning to look like it will be very difficult for John McCain to put together enough votes to win this election.”
The decision desk director of ABC News, Dan Merkle, said, “I think at ABC we’re going to be more cautious than that, in terms of telegraphing which way the election is going.