Kinsley: The great election-night scam
It’s a small matter, I know, compared with the historic issues now obsessing the commentariat, such as the fiscal cliff and how many mistresses and admirers David H. Petraeus could keep in the air simultaneously.
But before we say goodbye to Campaign 2012, I would just like to point out that the entire drama of a close election, as played out in the media on election night, is basically fake. Like broadcasters presenting baseball games in the early days of radio, the television networks know who’s going to win the game and more or less how it’s going to play out, inning by inning.
They know this primarily because of research conducted by the National Election Exit Poll on election day. And yet, in a perverse exercise of high-mindedness, the major news organizations have all agreed not to report the results of exit polls until after the polls have closed in a particular state.
It has evolved into a semi-religious ritual. At 11 a.m. on election day on the East Coast, representatives of each of the major news organizations — including ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press — enter a “quarantine room” with no telephones or Internet access. There, they sit and analyze the exit polls until 5 p.m., when they release what they’ve got to their employers, who get the data directly for the rest of the evening.
Exit poll data is supposed to be used for demographic insights only, not to predict the result. You can say, “Republicans are doing well tonight among upper-middle class white men aged 35 to 45, wearing red sweater vests and answering to the name of ‘Champ.’” But you can’t say, “Chances are better than even that Obama’s got it in the bag.”
You can learn a lot from tiny samplings by comparing them with past results. By 6 p.m. Eastern time on election night, CNN undoubtedly knew that President Obama was almost certain to win reelection. And it pretty much knew the electoral college count. But it thought it best to deny this information to its viewers.
Thus there was this stilted dialogue, airing sometime between 6 and 7 p.m., between John King and Wolf Blitzer about Vigo County, Ind.:
“One little ad lib here, if I can,” said King. “We’re starting to get results in Kentucky and in Indiana. Tiny results, 2% of the vote.
I want to show you a little place in Indiana. Vigo County.... Only twice since 1888 has Vigo County been wrong in picking a president. Why? Good question. But since the 1950s, this county has been right. It’s filling in blue at the
moment. Look at that. That’s only 17% of the vote. We’ll see how it goes tonight, but you watch it blue now. If it’s blue at the end of the night, we’ll see if Vigo County’s streak continues.”
King arguably saved himself at the end with a “we’ll see how it goes tonight,” but he sure sounded like someone assuming a Democratic victory at a time when he and everyone was telling viewers that the race was too close to call. (For those of you keeping score at home: Vigo County went for Obama by 339 votes.)
Blitzer then said thoughtfully: “Could be a bellwether, as they say; could be an indication of what’s going on. We’re going to watch all these states, all these counties, all these polling precincts very closely.” Then he tossed to Anderson Cooper, who added, “Who knew?”
The answer is that all three of them knew, or someone in the studio with them knew. But they were forbidden to say. When I worked at CNN, I was even forbidden to say that I was forbidden to say.
This is not merely an American insanity. In some European countries, reporting the results of exit polls (or sometimes of polls taken close to the election) is actually a criminal offense. The reasoning is that reporting results while the polls are still open somehow devalues the votes of people who haven’t yet voted. This might discourage turnout or even change the result.
Is this a valid concern? No. Your vote is just as valuable — or, if you prefer, just as worthless — no matter when you exercise your franchise. If it bothers you that the result has been decided before you cast your vote, that unfortunately will still be true whether the exit polls — and the conclusions experts draw from them — are made public or not. Yes, the polls and experts can get it wrong. But the concern here is that they usually get it right.
Voting should be encouraged. But people shouldn’t be tricked into voting, which is what this artificial suppression of information amounts to. It’s possible that some people will decide not to vote once the winner has been announced. But there is no reason to think that one candidate’s supporters are more likely than another’s to drop out, so that this could change the result.
It’s easy to see why the TV networks don’t mind putting on a play if the suspense keeps people watching past 6:30 p.m. But it amazes me that, with the encouragement of the government, not to mention an endless string of foundations and commissions and pompous individuals, some of the biggest players in the media world conspire to present a view of the world they know to be false.
It’s as if the government staged the whole walk on the moon thing in a warehouse somewhere, or as if Obama was born in Kenya. Except this one is for real.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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