On election night 2000, CBS (VIA ) anchor Dan Rather promised viewers: "If we say somebody has carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank." Right. In one of the worst nights in TV news history, CBS -- and all the other networks -- handed Florida to Al Gore, then to George W. Bush, before realizing at 4 a.m. that the race deciding the Presidency was too close to call. Nor did the networks redeem themselves in 2002, when a new computer system failed on election night.
Will they get it right this time? A consortium of CBS, ABC (DIS ), NBC (GE ), CNN (TWX ), Fox (FOX ), and the Associated Press is scrambling to make sure. They've disbanded Voter News Service, which conducted exit polls and counted votes in the last Presidential election. A new team of veteran pollsters will do exit polling, while the AP will tabulate votes. But they have skipped some costly proposed reforms, kept spending flat, and made the AP, until now just a backup, the sole source on vote counting. So there's no guarantee this election will pass without some red faces on TV.
WITHOUT A NET
The system did pass its first test of 2004, correctly identifying John F. Kerry as the most popular Democrat among caucus-goers in Iowa on caucus night. It also revealed a key reason for Howard Dean's poor performance: Although more than 70% agreed with his opposition to the war in Iraq, only around 14% said it was the main issue in their vote.
Trouble is, the networks have no safety net. To save money, they long ago abandoned independent efforts to gather data to predict election outcomes. They all look at the same exit polls and vote returns -- so if those numbers are wrong, they all risk jumping to the same erroneous conclusions. "Anybody watching gets the impression that they're relying on separate information, but they aren't," says one longtime vote counter.
The networks say they will compensate for the lack of diverse sources by making sure their sources are highly reliable. Exit polls this year will be run by two veterans: Warren J. Mitofsky, a leading pollster who helped invent exit polling while at CBS in 1967 and who now runs a New York firm that bears his name; and Joseph W. Lenski III, co-founder and executive vice-president of 25-employee Edison Media Research in Somerville, N.J., who has nearly two decades' experience with exit polls.
The records of Mitofsky and Lenski aren't spotless: They, too, made bad calls in Florida. But Lenski blames those mistakes on "faulty data" from county elections officials and says they have new procedures for spotting bad information. They also plan to increase phone surveys to catch the growing number of people who vote early, either in person or by absentee ballot -- and are missed by exit pollsters. But they won't double the number of precincts covered by exit pollsters, as suggested by consultant Research Triangle Institute, hired by the networks after 2000. Mitofsky argues that a small sample of precincts was not one of the problems in 2000. "We're not short of money to do the job right," he insists.
Once the polls close, the focus shifts from exit polls to counting votes. To get returns as early as possible, Voter News Service hired stringers to call in results from about 30,000 precincts nationwide. The AP's independent count ran a few minutes behind -- because, in most of the country, it gathered results only after they were reported to the county seats. But it provided a valuable backup, especially in 2002, when the Voter News computer tanked. With Voter News gone, the networks will rely solely on the AP for vote counts, aside from hit-or-miss government Web sites. Tom Jory, the AP's director of election tabulations, says the news agency is counting on redundant computer systems and experienced political editors to get vote counts right.
Will this all be enough to keep the TV networks from another disaster? Probably. Linda Mason, vice-president for public affairs at CBS News, says: "I'm not worried at all." Then again, neither was Dan Rather.
By Peter Coy in New York