Forum reveals what goes on behind the scenes when networks call elections
National newsrooms have their hands full on Election Day: tracking ballots, polling voters and trying to avoid speculation about the outcome. Amid the frenzy, they must use whatever credible information they can gather to decide which candidate has carried a state. Just how do they decide whether to call a state "red" or "blue"?
UCLA’s Department of Political Science offered a behind-the-scenes look at this process, hosting the forum, "And the Winner of the 2012 Presidential Election is ...! An Insider Discussion of How Networks Call Elections and Why They Sometimes Get It Wrong."
Moderated by UCLA Associate Professor of Political Science Lynn Vavreck, the Sept. 11 presentation — which drew an audience of 150 to the UCLA Faculty Center — featured Douglas Rivers, a professor of political science at Stanford University who serves as a consultant for CBS News, and Daron Shaw, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, who consults for Fox News.
Exit polls are just one piece of data that analysts use to predict the outcome of an election.
The two political scientists are members of a select group of political analysts who sit at the "decision desks" of the nation’s major news networks. These analysts depend on various forms of data to find out what voters are thinking and to determine which way a state is going. Among the information they draw upon is the exit poll, which — as its name suggests — is a poll of voters taken immediately after they have exited their polling station.
"Exit polls are fundamentally about making news coverage more interesting; providing a bit of color," said Rivers, the founder of three successful, venture-funded companies, two of which specialize in survey research. "Because otherwise, watching returns come in is like watching paint dry."
Generally, the exit poll is used to help predict the outcome of an election before all the votes have been counted, but it has another useful purpose: providing "the demographics and the opinions and what people say are the most important issues — what I call ‘color’ when we try to explain what the election means," Rivers said.
The exit poll alone, however, is not a completely reliable predictor of an election. It’s just one piece of data, Rivers noted, that goes into the analysts’ decision-making process, along with the results from the absentee vote (which occurs before Election Day) and from sample precincts (on Election Day). And if the race is close, analysts spend the rest of the evening watching the election returns, just like the rest of us.
"Nowadays, you have about as good access to election-return data as anyone at the network," Rivers told the audience. "The network consortium [ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN] that runs the exit poll has joined with the Associated Press to collect precinct-level data, but so much of the data is now on the Secretary of State’s website that there really are not a lot of secrets at that point. The networks do have a little bit of data from the exit poll and the sample precincts that will enable them to fill in where they have too much or too little data to make a better estimate. But by 11 at night, there really is very little information that they have that you don’t."
This map, created in July, shows the projected Electoral College votes for the upcoming 2012 presidential election. On Election Day, political analysts will use the data they have available to them to decide how accurate this map really is.
Shaw, who worked as a national election director and as a political analyst for a presidential campaign before getting his current job on the decision desk at Fox News, is also the author of three books on American politics. From his perspective, the "difficult" calls are actually easier in some sense, because in those cases the analysts must wait for the data.
"The hard states are the five-to-seven-point states, where you have to make a decision," Shaw said. "For instance, a tough call for us would be if preelection data show Michigan at five points for Obama, and we get a five-to-six-point margin in the exit poll. How long do we want to wait on a Michigan call?"
Such decisions could make for an excruciatingly long night. As Rivers pointed out, "On election night, there are 51 presidential races that need to be called. Some you could call right now. But we can’t, until there are some data. There are 33 or 34 Senate races, and there are some gubernatorial races. ... [But a big deal this year will be] who controls the Senate and who controls the House. I think the House is probably going to be fairly clear early on [Democrat], but the Senate is going to be the most suspenseful thing this year."
"And they’re related, too," Shaw added. "The presidential election influences the threshold for control of the Senate. And the last time around was a bear because you had this Alaska race that didn’t turn out to be influential, but could have been influential. And there is nothing worse than 4 o’clock in the morning, waiting for returns from the Bering Strait."