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TV's Early Call in Arizona Vote Angers Dole

February 29, 1996|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CBS, ABC and CNN did not exactly sound the death knell for the struggling presidential campaign of Sen. Bob Dole when they started projecting the early results of Tuesday's Republican primary in Arizona.

But they indicated that the early standings meant his bid was in critical condition.

Said ABC's "Nightline" host Ted Koppel at the top of Tuesday night's broadcast: "With an embarrassing third-place finish in today's Arizona primary, is Bob Dole losing the battle?"

Based on early exit poll results, CBS, ABC and CNN, along with the Associated Press, declared that Dole was in third place while publishing magnate Steve Forbes and Patrick J. Buchanan were battling for first.

"It is far too early to be drafting a funeral oration for Bob Dole's presidential campaign, but the candidate is not looking well, politically speaking," Koppel continued.

There was only one problem. The early prognosis was wrong on Dole. Yes, Forbes won the race. But Dole came in second while Buchanan finished third. Just a few hours after declaring their early results, the networks found themselves backtracking and revising their standings to curious viewers.

The networks stepped out on a limb even though the Voter News Service, the organization conducting the exit polls, said just after the polls closed that the race for second and third in the primary was too close to call.

The miscalculations resulted Wednesday in angry grumblings within the Dole camp and hastened apologies from the three television networks. Officials in the Dole campaign said the early reports from the networks and AP hurt the senator's reputation and status.

"They did a disservice not only to our campaign but to TV viewers throughout the state," said Dole spokeswoman Christina Martins. "We believe that the news outlets owe an apology to their viewers and readers."

Political insiders said it was the first time they could remember that the networks had stumbled so badly in their early predictions.

Only NBC managed to stay above the fray by its decision not to interpret early poll results Tuesday, saying the Arizona race for second and third was far too close to call.

Executives at the networks said the explanations for the Dole-related snafu had little to do with the traditional competition to be first in declaring a political winner, which has repeatedly come under fire by political observers.

"It's not a badge of honor to be first anymore," said Hal Bruno, political director for ABC. "That was OK back in the '60s and '70s. But it's more important to make sure you're right."

Instead, executives said, the error had more to do with inexperience in dealing with elections in Arizona, which was sponsoring its first presidential primary. They added that they had not taken into account a new procedure that allowed voters from the most populous county in Arizona--Maricopa, which includes Phoenix--to vote outside their county, throwing off expected voter trends from specific areas.

Some of the executives belittled the significance of the error, noting that only the winner gained Arizona's delegates. Since Dole did not come in first, they argued, it didn't matter whether he came in second or third.

Still, ABC, CNN and CBS said the mistake was inexcusable. Some critics agreed.

"It's pretty outrageous," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "I know it wasn't intentional, but how many more warnings about the kinds of things that can happen with this are we going to need? They ought to wait for real votes. Otherwise, it just leads to serious mistakes like the ones Tuesday. Exit polls have been wrong before and they will be wrong again. How many more times do they have to be wrong before there is more caution about them?"

On Tuesday, officials at the Voter News Service said they told the networks soon after the polls closed in Arizona that the race for second and third was too close to call. But the networks nevertheless proceeded to make their analysis.

"There's a very complicated series of explanations, but it was mainly because of this situation in Maricopa County," said Lane Venardos, a vice president of CBS News. "Data was coming in from places where we thought people would vote one way, and in reality, people were voting there who didn't live there."

Venardos said he wasn't sure why the potential imbalance in data was not figured out before the primary. "I didn't know about the procedure until Wednesday morning, when we started our investigation," he said.

But he and news executives at the other networks said they felt the situation in Arizona was unique.

"I don't want to minimalize how seriously we take this error, but I don't think this lends itself to problems all over the map," Venardos said. "We believe the basic procedures are sound and grounded in solid polling practices."

Added CNN Political Director Tom Hannon: "In retrospect, this was a case where we clearly could have avoided it. That's true of any human error. But I also point out that a number of others made the same judgment. It's a system that requires a great deal of caution."

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