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TV Rerun: The Perils of Projection

November 06, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A familiar controversy blanketed Tuesday night's election coverage.

It was that old bugaboo: TV network projections based on exit polls.

In past elections, networks used cumulative data from states whose polls had closed to project winners of presidential races before all the ballots in the West had been cast--possibly skewing other elections by influencing some people not to bother voting for significant local and statewide issues and candidates.

Tuesday would be no different.

As projections showed state after state toppling to Clinton like dominoes, it was inevitable that the networks--joined at the hip--would do what they'd done previously. And to their credit, again simultaneously urge citizens to go to the polls to vote in other races.

Here's the way it went:

At 4 p.m.: ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN announced President Clinton taking Florida--a state many pundits had said Bob Dole would need to win to upset Clinton--along with New Hampshire and Vermont. CBS News anchorman Dan Rather figured that to Dole supporters, this development was "scary enough to make you swallow your gum."

Half an hour later, the networks projected for Clinton another reportedly pivotal state, Ohio--in effect giving the president an apparent commanding lead in the electoral vote.

At 5 p.m., with polls having just closed in many states, the networks announced that Clinton had 198 of the 270 electoral votes needed for reelection--implying that Dole was all but done.

At 6 p.m., after what Rather called "the hour of power," the networks gave Clinton their official anointing, saying he had won in enough states to earn 275 electoral votes and that for Dole, only darkness lay at the end of the tunnel.

Even before that, a bristling Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) had protested the network projections to ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, and Gov. Pete Wilson had delivered a stinging rebuke in an interview with Conan Nolan on KNBC-TV Channel 4: "I think that's really irresponsible of the networks," Wilson said about the projections that depicted Dole as rapidly sinking.

Yet 10 minutes earlier, a prominent Republican, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, was himself speaking on TV about a second Clinton term. Perhaps Armey and Wilson also should have aimed their anger at Lott. Moreover, NBC reported at 6:40 p.m.--80 minutes before polls closed in the West--that Dole press secretary Nelson Warfield had issued a statement appearing to concede victory to Clinton. Other networks followed suit.

Shades of 1980, when President Carter angered his fellow Democrats by conceding to Ronald Reagan before poll closings here. Except that 45 minutes after word of Dole's concession Tuesday night, Phil Jones of CBS News was reading a statement from the Dole camp that the candidate "has conceded nothing."

But the confusion did not end there, for the networks themselves now were conceding something--that their early projection of Democrat Dick Swett unseating GOP Sen. Robert C. Smith in New Hampshire was, well, a bit hasty. Now they were saying the race was too close to call.

"Smith may still win that race," Rather said. "It's hold-your-breath time. It's code blue time." On ABC, Jennings and reporters Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts were getting a good laugh about their own premature projection, which ABC later reversed by calling Smith the victor.

But wait. What was to laugh about? If it was "code blue time" for the New Hampshire senatorial projection, might it also be "code blue time" for some of the other earlier projections?

Even if this high-wire act did have no net, it seemed unlikely the presidential outcome would change. But even after Dole ultimately conceded, a bit after 8 p.m., the uncertainty over New Hampshire remained something to think about, given TV's heavy reliance on exit polls.

As was the enduring hypothesis that a significant number of California voters would be diverted from going to the polls to cast their ballots in other contests if they knew the outcome of the presidential race. If so, what that says about Californians, and their apparent apathy toward elections and the issues that may deeply affect them and their fellow citizens, is much more alarming than networks speeding to report projections based on exit polls.

And scary enough to make you swallow your gum.

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