You can probably remember exactly where you were when it happened. It was Election Day 2004, late afternoon and all of the exit polls had John Kerry winning the election. And if, like us, you were a Kerry supporter who spent the afternoon walking around your college campus convinced that the Senator from Massachusetts had sewn this one up, you probably felt the same pit in your stomach disappointment as the hours ticked into the wee morning and you squinted at the returns on your dorm-room TV only to see that Bush had won. Or something like that.
Well, not this year! The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat will have to wait until after 5 p.m. Why? Because the networks don’t want to get burned again like they did four years ago.
Howard Kurtz has the fearful quotes from Brian Williams and George Stephanopoulos to prove it:
“We have learned from past mistakes,” says NBC anchor Brian Williams. “I start from the assumption I will wake up with a sore back on my couch” after an all-nighter.
“There’s likely to be a lot of hedging,” says ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “You may know it, but you can’t say it.”
As if Stephanapoulos wasn’t poring over exit poll data 16 years ago. Anyways, evidently that was then and this is now. And now, exit polls are being kept in a secret, windowless quarantine room as if the information was classified intelligence about Osama bin Laden’s wherabouts.
Washington Post: The biggest behind-the-scenes change in network coverage involves what has been dubbed the Quarantine Room. Determined to avoid a rerun of recent years, when its exit polls leaked out by early afternoon to the Drudge Report, Slate and other Web sites, a media consortium is allowing two people from each of the networks and the Associated Press entree to a windowless room in New York. All mobile phones, laptops and BlackBerrys will be confiscated. The designated staffers will pore over the exit polls but will not be allowed to communicate with their offices until 5 p.m.
The consortium, called the National Election Pool, is conducting no surveys for House races. The exit polling will take place for Senate and gubernatorial contests in 32 states with competitive races.
The recent track record with such polling has been pockmarked with failure. There was, of course, the debacle of election night 2000, when the networks used polling data from Florida to prematurely award the presidency, twice, within hours. In 2002, the network consortium’s predecessor, Voter News Service, suffered a computer meltdown and pulled the plug on its exit polls. Two years ago, its sample was so skewed that the group’s surveys showed Sen. John Kerry beating President Bush well into the night.
Williams is acutely aware of that history. “I called Florida for Al Gore, too,” he says, recalling his anchoring role on MSNBC. “It was a horrible moment.” Now, he says, “we have all kinds of fail-safes built into the system.”…
“Frankly,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, “we’re not in any rush to call individual House races. Our mantra is simple: It’s better to be right than to be first. We’re going to be extremely cautious.”
Fox, always the contrarian, isn’t using any exit polls at all. This afternoon, Shepard Smith reportedly said that the channel would not be reporting exit polls in its coverage because they are often wrong. Fine then, we were going to watch CNN anyways. Only an hour to go…
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