Networks vow to be patient tonight
If Sen. Barack Obama racks up victories in key Eastern and Midwestern states tonight, television viewers will probably hear that he appears headed for victory even before the polls close in the West.
But officials at the broadcast and cable networks as well as the Associated Press said Monday that they would not project a president-elect until one nominee has at least 270 electoral votes in his column. And they won’t award any electoral votes from a state until after all the polls in that state are scheduled to close.
Short of an Obama landslide, it’s unlikely that either candidate will reach the requisite 270 electoral votes without Western states such as California or Nevada.
But that won’t stop network analysts from indicating the direction the race appears headed.
“If it seems very likely that one man will reach 270, we will leave little doubt about our expectations,” said one TV news executive.
An Obama victory could appear clear early in the night before California has finished voting, because the state is considered a lock for the Democrat.
“If that’s the case, we won’t declare him the president-elect -- because it won’t have happened yet -- but we’ll be clear in our language about the likely outcome,” the executive said.
If Obama were to sweep the battleground states in the East and Midwest and win Colorado and New Mexico, he could theoretically reach 270 electoral votes around 6 p.m. PST -- two hours before the polls close on the West Coast.
But political news directors said they don’t expect to have results that early. In tightly contested states, the networks will not project winners based on exit polls, a change that was made after the 2000 election, when an early call was made that Democrat Al Gore had won Florida. Instead, the networks will wait for actual vote returns, which will delay the calls.
“Based on everything we know about the speed by which the votes will be reported, I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll hit 270 before 11 p.m. Eastern time,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, who defended the networks’ right to report results as they come in.
“This is information in the public domain that is our responsibility to share with our viewers,” he said.
Indeed, trying to hold back the results when both exit poll data and vote returns will be available online is fruitless, network executives said.
But the prospect of news organizations calling the race before all votes have been cast alarmed elected officials such as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who sent a letter to network executives last week asking them to refrain from projecting a winner until all the polls have closed nationwide. He argued that an early projection could depress voter turnout and affect other contests.
That’s what happened in 1980, when the networks projected that Ronald Reagan had won the presidential election more than two hours before polls closed in the West. In California, officials said that decreased turnout by 2%, a key margin in some of the other ballot races.
Rick Davis, Sen. John McCain’s campaign manager, said Monday that it would be inappropriate for the networks to project a winner while voters are casting ballots.
“You don’t want them affecting turnout,” he said. “I thought they’d have learned their lesson in 2000.”
But David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, said he thought the issue was moot.
“Given the long lines we anticipate, it may be quite late before they can even call the early states,” Axelrod said.
Network officials said they were mindful of the influence of their reports.
CBS News spokeswoman Leigh Farris noted that the network would provide full coverage of Senate, House and gubernatorial races throughout the night and “will stress the importance of everyone going out to vote.”
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
At least 20 networks will be providing live coverage of results. Each news organization independently analyzes exit-poll results, turnout information and vote tabulation to call a state for either candidate. No projections will be made before the polls have closed in a particular state. Here is what some of the networks have planned:
ABC: Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos kick off coverage at 4 p.m., followed by a special “Nightline” at 11:35 p.m.
CBS: Anchor Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer and Jeff Greenfield report beginning at 4 p.m., followed by a live webcast on CBSNews.com at 11 p.m.
CW: Regular programming, with most local stations providing two election updates each hour during episodes of “90210" and “Privileged.”
Fox: Shepard Smith, on loan from the Fox News Channel, helms coverage beginning at 4 p.m.
NBC: Brian Williams anchors coverage beginning at 4 p.m., joined by Tom Brokaw, Ann Curry, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell.
PBS: Coverage starts at 6 p.m. with anchor Jim Lehrer and analysts columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks.
Telemundo: Hourly updates starting at 7 a.m. Pedro Sevcec and Maria Celeste Arraras anchor coverage beginning at 4 p.m.
Univision: Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas report on the results starting at 4 p.m.
CABLE AND SATELLITE NETWORKS
BET: News updates throughout the day, with special coverage anchored by Jeff Johnson beginning at 8 p.m.
BBC America: David Dimbleby and Matt Frei anchor coverage beginning at 3 p.m., joined by Ted Koppel.
CNBC: Anchors report on results beginning at 4 p.m.
CNN: Wolf Blitzer leads prime-time coverage starting at 3 p.m, with Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien.
Comedy Central: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert anchor “Indecision 2008,” a live 7 p.m. special.
Current: Beginning at 4 p.m., the network will deliver a real-time stream of election updates, Digg stories and Twitter posts, along with live music sets by DJ Diplo.
DIRECTV: The Election Mix Channel features feeds from eight different networks on one screen, starting at 4 p.m.
Fox Business Network: Managing Editor Neil Cavuto anchors coverage beginning at 3 p.m.
Fox News Channel: Brit Hume heads up coverage beginning at 3 p.m., joined by Chris Wallace, Fred Barnes, Bill Kristol, Juan Williams and Nina Easton.
MSNBC: Coverage starts at 2 p.m., with anchor David Gregory joined by Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Eugene Robinson.
TV One: Starting at 4 p.m., the network will report on results, with dispatches from two historically black colleges in battleground states.
V-me: The Spanish-language network partners with Grupo Latino de Radio for coverage beginning at 4 p.m.
-- Matea Gold