St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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Why the networks' call kept changing

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


The alarming and cryptic e-mails started hitting newsrooms at 9:38 p.m. election night:

"WE'RE CANCELING THE VOTE IN COUNTY 16," said Voter News Service's first message, refering to Florida's Duval County. "THE VOTE IS STRANGE."

Then the bombshell at 10:13: "WE'RE RETRACTING OUR CALL IN FL BECAUSE WE DON'T HAVE OUR PREVIOUS CONFIDENCE."

By then, of course, the TV networks had already begun leading America on an election night roller coaster ride. Just before 8 p.m., anchors declared Al Gore the winner in Florida, only to retract the projection two hours later because of dubious exit polling data, including from Tampa. Then, at 2:18 a.m., the networks called Florida for Bush, only to back off again less than two hours later.

It was a stunning blunder by the networks and a reminder of the vagaries of polling. Skewed numbers are possible with any poll before Election Day, but the stakes are much higher with exit polls used by news outlets to call elections.

"It's a high wire act," said Frank Newport, a pollster with Gallup, which does no exit polling. "Exit polling, unlike anything we do, is an incredibly intense situation where you take data and operate with the clock ticking right in front of you."

Networks used to hire their own exit polling outfits, but for the past decade they have all relied largely on the same organization to gather and crunch the numbers for calling winners before all the votes are counted. Voter News Service is the consortium run by NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press, and has dozens of subscribers, including the St. Petersburg Times.

The staff of the New York-based corporation grows to nearly 45,000 for national elections. On Tuesday, its small army of pollsters included people surveying 1,818 randomly selected voters in 45 Florida precincts, as well as people phoning in vote tallies from select county and voting precincts across the state. They take those numbers, compare and massage them, and normally pick the winner.

But a combination of problems helped VNS miss the mark on one of the most crucial states in the presidential election. At 4 p.m. VNS showed Gore leading Bush 49 percent to 47 percent, and by 7:30 p.m., the exit poll showed Gore leading 51 percent to 46 percent. Shortly before 10 p.m., they had Gore leading 49 percent to 48 percent.

Warren Mitofsky, a veteran exit pollster who used to head VNS and worked with CBS and CNN analyzing the polling data Tuesday, said that a sampling of six precincts in Tampa included too many Democrats and that VNS received inaccurate vote count reports from the Jacksonville area. That inflated the number of Gore votes in the normally Republican-leaning area.

VNS issued a brief statement Wednesday evening saying that initially VNS and its members considered the race too close to call. But their confidence grew after reports of actual vote counts in sample counties and precincts supported their exit survey numbers in those areas.

"These models, based on sampling precincts, have served us well through many elections. However, we will investigate why they did not work properly in this specific situation," VNS said.

VNS is well-regarded in the industry. Unaffiliated pollsters Wednesday suggested that if anyone blew the Florida call, it was the networks who declared the winner too fast.

This wasn't the only time VNS fell short on its exit polls, however.

In a Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Texas in March, it wrongly reported that the third place finisher had finished in second place. In 1996, it wrongly projected the winner a U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire and overestimated Pat Buchanan's showing in both the New Hampshire and Arizona presidential primaries.

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From the Times election desk

Presidential

  • Recount begins as world watches
  • What a difference 12 hours makes
  • Voters statewide say they had poll troubles
  • Why the networks' call kept changing
  • Tired eyes watch over recount
  • Media rechecking their crystal balls
  • Wall Street joins nation in long wait
  • Election mania has everyone talking, waiting
  • Remarks by George W. Bush, Al Gore on the election returns
  • The victor must earn legitimacy by uniting
  • A Rather long night
  • Inside the Electoral College
  • Overseas ballots suddenly crucial
  • Presidential results
  • Election results
  • U.S. Senate winners
  • Governor winners
  • Election briefs
  • U.S. House winners
  • State

  • A night the Bushes won't forget
  • Funding for train mystifies officials
  • Capitol leaders predict less partisan session
  • Disclosure's role debated
  • Pinellas

  • Gore vote says GOP has edge, not a lock, in Pinellas County
  • Three recounts needed in fire district race
  • Vote shocks senior center's fans
  • Hillsborough

  • Gore won city; Bush swept the suburbs
  • Tired eyes watch over recount
  • House District 60 race won by smallest margin
  • Easterling says knocking on doors helped her win
  • To their regret, non-voters learn: It matters
  • So much to count, so little time
  • Pasco

  • Decision on sheriff brings prayers, tears
  • Cannon became his 'own worst enemy'
  • Recount gives a new name to fatigue: Chad
  • Cannon has only himself to blame for his downfall
  • Two new commissioners aren't passive
  • Hernando

  • Democrats: New force in Hernando
  • Voters discard politics of race in picking elections supervisor
  • All around the county, the election is the word
  • Recount dominates day after elections
  • Citrus

  • Citrus first in state to give results
  • Hickey hopes to mend rifts
  • Republicans fare well with Citrus voters
  • Recount blurs result in Crystal River race
  • Collector, appraiser victors are grateful
  • Election results
  • Votes hit close to home for these two
  • Activist was wild card in race
  • Results leave many befuddled
  • Council races hinged on past contretemps


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