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So, when will we know who won this thing, eh?
October 15, 2008 9:13 AM   Subscribe

How does projecting the winner of the US presidential election work? And what is the earliest time at which the election may be called?

To clarify, I'm asking about television networks -- let's define these as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, PBS for the sake of this question -- not other news sources such as the AP.

Now, let's break this down into several more specific questions:

(1) Is it possible that a network calls a state before all of its polls are closed, e.g. California for the Democratic candidate or Utah for the Republican, based on the assumption that it almost certainly will not break the other way? If not, is this a direct result of 2000 or has it always been this way?

(2) Extending the previous question, is it possible that a network calls the election before it has made 270 Electoral Votes worth of per-state calls for any candidate? For example, if at any given time the Democratic candidate has accumulated a projected 200 EV from states east of the Mississippi, will a network call the election based on the assumption that the West Coast's 73 EV will break for the Democrat? (A similar scenario could of course be constructed for the Republican candidate.)

(3) Are poll closing times this year identical to those in 2004?

(4) Based on the answers to (1), (2) and (3) and any other information, what is the earliest time the election could possibly be called?

I remember 2000 and 2004, and I understand that in close elections it can take a long time before a winner is projected. But I am too young to remember 1996 and earlier, and I can find very little convincing historical information online.

It logically follows that for this question I'm assuming a not-so-close election, or at least one that might allow for an earlier call than the last two times around. But I feel compelled to note that I am not necessarily assuming the 2008 election as it stands today. I'm asking about what is possible, not what's likely this time: in other words, this question should basically be equally applicable to 2012 or any hypothetical election, not specifically the 2008 election as it stands today.

Lastly, it goes without saying, but I would ask you to kindly refrain from political discussion -- this is about how election night calls work and what is possible, not about who you want to win or think might win.

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Historical bonus questions:

(5) For past presidential elections during the television era, what time was the earliest network call (for the presidency) made?

(6) Can you point to any video of this online, or any text accounts?

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Let's assume ET for the sake of clarity. And more general information on specific broadcasters' policies, historical examples etc. would also be very welcome.

I'm sorry if this seems convoluted or like multiple questions for the price of one, but since the answer to one question essentially determines the other, I felt I had to break it down like this.

Let me know if anything's unclear, and thank you ever so much for any insight you might have. Thanks!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Eh, I think this should answer (3), my bad. (I couldn't find this when I last checked TGP, just '04.)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:15 AM on October 15, 2008


(1) Is it possible that a network calls a state before all of its polls are closed

The major networks don't do this, so that they aren't inadvertently influencing voter turnout. Why would I get up to go vote for my guy in a state that's already been called for the other guy?

(2) Extending the previous question, is it possible that a network calls the election before it has made 270 Electoral Votes worth of per-state calls for any candidate?

This usually isn't done, if for no other reason than California is on the west coast, and it's pretty hard to be sure about electoral numbers until that massive state weighs in. However, I seem to recall that they can call elections before the polls close in Hawaii and Alaska.


(3) Are poll closing times this year identical to those in 2004?

(4) Based on the answers to (1), (2) and (3) and any other information, what is the earliest time the election could possibly be called?


I believe the west coast polls close at 8:00 pm. (with the exception of OR, which is all mail-in) That would mean that 8:00 PM Pacific would be the earliest, again assuming that they don't wait for AK and HI (they usually don't)
posted by chrisamiller at 9:28 AM on October 15, 2008


Here's a brief article on the topic from 2006.

And here's an analysis of the impact of early network calls on the 1980 Presidential and Congressional elections: "Scooping the Voters? The Consequences of the Networks' Early Call of the 1980 Presidential Race."
posted by googly at 9:34 AM on October 15, 2008


The networks used to use exit polling to call a state before the polls closed. In 2000, CNN called Florida (for Gore, initially) while the panhandle still had an hour to vote. They now wait until the polls close, but still use their exit polling numbers to make the call. That's why at the exact minute they close, they'll call states.

I vaguely remember the '96 election getting called early, but don't remember exactly what time it was. I can assume '84 was also called early, given the landslide Reagan victory.
posted by hwyengr at 9:38 AM on October 15, 2008


You say that you care about what's possible instead of what's likely, so:

Is it possible that a network calls a state before all of its polls are closed

Sure. If they really wanted to, ABC could "call" the election in Florida now, or last week.
They could announce on the news tonight the winners of the next 14 presidential elections. They'd look like idiots, though.

Extending the previous question, is it possible that a network calls the election before it has made 270 Electoral Votes worth of per-state calls for any candidate?

Again, sure. They can call an election whenever they feel like it, in the sense that they will not be forcibly prevented from doing so. Doing so too early just means that they'll look like idiots and raise some public ire against them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:00 AM on October 15, 2008


Wasn't the '72 election a huge landslide as well? I'd imagine that one was called pretty early.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:04 AM on October 15, 2008


The networks used to use exit polling to call a state before the polls closed. In 2000, CNN called Florida (for Gore, initially) while the panhandle still had an hour to vote.

Although even then, they did have the stated principle that they only called states where the polls were closed. They just ignored the panhandle because it was inconvenient.
posted by smackfu at 10:46 AM on October 15, 2008


This book probably has the information you want about the historical times of election "calls", but unfortunately I can't find any sort of preview online. This Slate review of said book cites 7:30 CST for 1984 and 8:20/9:30 for 1988 (one of the networks called it later than the other two.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:23 AM on October 15, 2008


Unlike Canada, the United States does not have "blackout" laws about reporting on elections. This is why some online sites (such as Drudge Report) will leak polling numbers early. Major news sources like CNN have countdown clocks to when the polls close and then they report the numbers. (based on exit polls)
posted by ALongDecember at 11:41 AM on October 15, 2008


Related information:
The 2008 exit polls on which the networks base their "calls" will be conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

Their methodology is outlined here. From that info: Projections of a winning candidate are only made after all the polls in a state are closed and when the best model estimates show a clear winner. There will be no projections before the last polls in a state are closed.

Are they infallible? They seem to think so: Since Edison/Mitofsky began conducting exit polls for the National Election Pool in 2003, the news organizations using the Edison Mitofsky data have not made a single mistake in deciding a winner in any race.

Want to subscribe? Subscription prices vary by type of media outlet and by size of state and media market. The range is $1000 to $5750 per state. Results for the National Exit Poll are available for $26,000.
posted by beagle at 11:46 AM on October 15, 2008


For historical interest, it was Ohio, Illinois, and, yes, California, in 1948, that made certain predictions inaccurate. The Chicago Tribune was pretty confident that polls in those states showed them going one way, but in fact they went the other. Moral of story? Margin of error certainly makes a difference.
posted by eritain at 11:47 AM on October 15, 2008


Margin of error, is, of course, a two-edged blade: The reason you can call Utah's electoral vote in advance is that the poll result is so very, very many 'margins of error' away from making it swing.
posted by eritain at 11:49 AM on October 15, 2008


Well, he's a Democrat, but Chris Bowers is tempted to call Iowa for Obama already.
posted by Pants! at 11:58 AM on October 15, 2008


For what it's worth, CNN just moved Virginia from "toss-up" to "lean Obama" status, putting him up to 277 EVs even without the other swing states. Blitzer was careful to note that the projection was just a projection, and that things could change, but still... it's a pretty big morale blow to the other side.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:30 PM on October 15, 2008


I believe the west coast polls close at 8:00 pm. (with the exception of OR, which is all mail-in)

For those who do not want to use or did not get mail-in ballots, Oregon does actually have polling stations (usually only 1-2 per precinct, but still) that do close at 8 pm, so Oregon doesn't announce its results until after 8 either.
posted by pdb at 2:17 PM on October 15, 2008


Thanks, guys.

Interesting: "In 1980 early exit poll data revealed a Reagan sweep that had not been reflected in the pre-election surveys. NBC used the information to project the winner at 5 p.m. EST. Jimmy Carter found the exit poll data so convincing that he conceded before the West Coast finished voting."
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:42 AM on October 16, 2008


Also: Review of "The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections"

Election Night Ignorance (more from Slate)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:45 AM on October 16, 2008


Finally, a mention of this in the news:

Politico: Nation could face short Election Night
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:10 PM on October 17, 2008


Video: NBC's 1980 call (Reagan), 8:15 PM ET.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:42 AM on October 18, 2008


Nixon '72. Interesting series.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:50 AM on October 18, 2008


Reuters news article
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:58 PM on October 29, 2008


Pew Research interviews Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research, the organization that does the exit polling for the NEP (successor to the VNS) on their methodology for Election Day.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:43 PM on October 29, 2008


NYT: Networks May Call Race Before Voting Is Complete
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:39 PM on November 3, 2008


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