NPR logo

Making the Call: Peril in the Election-Night Newsroom

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18711470/18711448" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Making the Call: Peril in the Election-Night Newsroom

Media

Making the Call: Peril in the Election-Night Newsroom

Making the Call: Peril in the Election-Night Newsroom

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18711470/18711448" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
CBS election-night workers update results on a chalkboard i

Easier then? Not necessarily: Even when Dewey was duking it out with Truman, journalists were known to make bad calls on election night. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
CBS election-night workers update results on a chalkboard

Easier then? Not necessarily: Even when Dewey was duking it out with Truman, journalists were known to make bad calls on election night.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pity the poor TV analysts: Tonight, in real time, they'll have to figure out who's anointed and who's disappointed in contests involving both major political parties and spanning two dozen states.

But the rules vary from state to state and party to party. With so many different ways to keep score, how can the networks possibly figure out a clear-cut winner? I paid a visit to two big TV news shops to figure that out for myself.

Kathy Frankovic is a former college professor who has worked for CBS News for more than 30 years. She's the director of surveys, and she had thought she had seen it all — until now.

"We have never had this many states, this many races, in both parties, on a primary night ever before, I think, in history," Frankovic says.

A few long blocks away, at Fox News Channel's Midtown Manhattan headquarters, executive David Rhodes shows me around the decision desk. That's where Michael Barone, who's overseeing the network's team of academics, political researchers and journalists, will stand and explain to viewers exactly how they're making predictions.

Rhodes says there's a lingering memory that accounts for the caution: Election Night 2000, when networks predicted who had won Florida. Twice. And had to withdraw it. Both times.

"This is tougher than a general election," Rhodes says of tonight's Super Tuesday primaries.

Tougher? Sure. Usually a general election comes down to a dozen key states — the others are pretty clear cut. That's not the case tonight.

"Tuesday is a triage operation. It is for us, and it is for everybody else that's going to be making projections," Rhodes says. "You're not really looking at one race or even two dozen races, but just under two dozen races, in two parties, among multiple candidates. And then to add another layer of complexity, many of these races are not winner-take-all — they're proportionate to the congressional districts."

So the "decision desk" — boy does TV loooove alliteration — will wade through exit polls, raw-vote updates and reporters' tips from the field to determine why people voted as they did. The big question: how to determine who wins. After all, you can tally up victories by state, or by vote, or by delegate count.

Back at CBS, Frankovic says all three are important.

"The end-of-the-night story is of course the delegates," she says — and that's fair enough. A candidate wins the nomination by acquiring delegates. But hold on.

"In the course of getting to there, we are looking at what is happening, state by state," Frankovic says. "There is a big burst of poll closings at 8 p.m. Eastern time." It's nine states in all.

Later in the evening, she continues, it becomes about the behavior of voters.

"Are there regional differences? Are there different subgroups within the Democratic and Republican parties who are important? What does this mean for the future? Where are we headed?"

Even the delegates themselves are tough to allocate. On the Democratic side, "superdelegates" who hold big offices often announce their allegiance, but they're not required to keep their promises. And votes cast in states holding caucuses don't always translate immediately into delegates either.

That, of course, creates the opportunity for confusion. Frankovic will be wearing a microphone — and makeup — just to be ready for her closeup, in case there's a problem.

"My goal," says Frankovic, "is never to go on television on election night."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.