How The Networks Got It Wrong
Problem Polling Policy
By Michael Hammerschlag
The word wafted through the Democratic election-night party like a foul odor: "they're giving Florida back." The celebration had already begun after stunning early news had given the monstrously important state of Florida to Gore at 7:50 p.m. EST. Within another hour the key states Michigan and Pennsylvania had followed into the Gore column, and the election was considered all but over. Gore needed only one or two more small undecided states to sew it up. Previously, CBS's Dan Rather had promised to hold off till they were sure: "We would rather be last, than be wrong ... if we say somebody's carried a state you can pretty much take it to the bank."
Well, the deposit bounced ... TWICE. First, at 10 p.m., after Bush and GOP strategist Karl Rove excoriated the networks for calling the state early (before the polls even closed in the Central Time Zone part of the panhandle), the networks took it back. That returned "FL" to the undecided column, to the assembled Democrats' horror, and returning the entire contest to a crap shoot.
The first problem was a simple error in translating the exit poll data by Voter News Service, the sole company that provides instant polling data to all the networks and CNN, according to a top Democratic operative who knows their operations intimately: "What happened was that the data in from one of these larger counties was put in, in reverse. When they got the data from one of these larger counties [Tampa, probably], they put Bush's numbers in for Gore and Gore's numbers in for Bush, so if it was a Republican county and they had Gore winning big, they said, 'That's it. It's over. He won.' The VNS people got the exit polls from the county [precincts] and someone inputted (sic) it into their data base switched."
"That is not true," said Lee C. Shapiro, spokesperson for VNS. "There was a data entry error that was made and corrected after the time of the Gore projection and well before the time of the second call." However, she also implied there were more errors.
VNS, in NYC, "is a pool owned and operated by five networks and AP — it was formed 35 years ago to cooperate instead of compete in getting broad election info," said Joel Albert, their D.C. manager. Wasn't it dangerous to have only one source? "That allows them to concentrate their efforts," Joel says, by way of circular reasoning. "There are no checks and balances ... it means they all make the same mistakes," says Americans for Democratic Action head Amy Issacs (ADA is the oldest liberal org.). A similar error had allegedly miscalled the 1996 New Hampshire Senate race for Democrat Dick Swett, when Bob Smith was the ultimate winner. "The TV station [Channel 9, the only New Hampshire station] never recovered [it's credibility]," said a New Hampshire reporter.
But wouldn't they double check these things in such a crucial state in this crucial election? "You would think they would," the operative said, "when you look at something like that and say 'wait a minute, this is kind of weird.' Four people sit [at VNS] and put data in spreadsheets, and it's their job to call races: one person for the House — East, one for House — West, one for Senate, and one for the President." The networks also accepted this data without question, presuming, as the VNS did, that a Gore majority in a Republican district meant a blowout — and started calling Florida (the linchpin of the whole contest) for the Veep at 7:49 p.m. The early call could have caused some Bush or Gore voters in Western states to not vote or make a 'safe' vote for Nader, thinking the contest was already decided (though I'm skeptical of that theory). "We can eliminate the possibility of such errors and give the West Coast a fair shot, free of the knowledge of how the rest of the country went," says broadcasting eminence Walter Cronkite, "by a change in the election reporting laws to limit the announcement of how any state goes until all states have voted."
CBS News communications Veep Sandy Genelius confirmed the swapped numbers scenario and contradicted Shapiro: "In the first call [Florida for Gore] we believe it was a data entry error, so some incorrect data got entered in the computer [at VNS]. It seemed like a safe call to make. As more data came in, a small sample of the data didn't really look like it matched up." "Duval County [Jacksonville] was the county that there was trouble with — data coming over and not being right," claimed CBS polling surveyor Jennifer Depinto. Duval elections operations manager Robert Phillips explains: "I called in my first report (to VNS) at 9 p.m.: Bush 1,026, Gore 4,302 ... and I think what they did was add another 3 on the end so they had 43,023," a 39,000 vote error. No one at VNS noticed the 42-fold difference until Phillips made his next report. "It wouldn't accept my report because it said I had a vote drop!" This all happened after the bad call for Gore; it first reinforced their error, then helped expose it.
Republican-controlled Duval County had huge anomalies: 22,000 overvotes (invalidated for having punched two candidates), more than Palm Beach (which had 69 percent more voters), but they didn't have the butterfly ballot. They did have a two-page ballot for president and a different one-page sample ballot that said "VOTE EVERY PAGE," which Dem "Get Out the Vote" workers dutifully repeated to new voters. Half the 27,000 voided ballots (9 percent of the total) were in black districts voting +90 percent for Gore. In the 1996 election only 2000-4000 were tossed for overvoting (est.), so the overvote increase was six-fold, the total voided increase three-fold. "Statewide there were 184,000 (rejected) overvotes and undervotes (no vote) — which is an astronomical number — some of them went outside and were interviewed by VNS (who questioned 1,800 at 45 exit-polling stations), and that's what skewed ... their data," theorized NE Florida Gore chairman Mike Langton. With the 9:20 p.m. Duval report the mistake was discovered, and an urgent e-mail flashed from VNS to the networks: "We're canceling the vote from county 16. The vote is strange." With that shock added to the swapped totals, VNS had lost confidence in their Gore prediction. Starting at 9:50, the networks threw Florida back into the undecided pool.
The donkeys were sent back down into the darkening canyon. Since it was virtually impossible for either candidate to win without Florida, it was now anybody's contest.
At 2:16 AM, with Bush leading by a supposed 47,000 votes in Florida, again shockingly early, Fox TV (whose election coverage manager, John Ellis, is George Bush's cousin), followed within four minutes by the other networks, committed the second outrage: calling the state and the election for Bush. He was president. "BUSH WINS" flashed decisively on the screen. The Gore supporters in Nashville lapsed into a morose funk, tears streaming down some faces, while the throngs of Bushmen went wild in front of the swirling colored lights of the Austin capital. That was the way it went, as Al Gore called Bush and conceded, motored to the outside rally an hour and a half later in a funeral cortège for his political ambitions, and was 1-2 minutes from taking the stage and conceding before his crushed supporters. Had that happened, it would have been morally impossible to rescind it: Bush could have screamed Gore was being dishonorable and unmanly, feeding into the endless erroneous stories about Gore's honesty. "It would have been exceedingly difficult (for Gore to retract a public concession)," says Cronkite. [Even now, that blown call, those two anointed hours, created the impression that prize rightfully belonged to Bush; it hardened his resistance to the possibility of losing and generated the TV questions about when Gore will concede; although with an electoral (16), popular (~240,000 then), and likely real lead (>5000, if a full hand recount was done) in Florida — Gore should have worn the mantle of inevitability.]
Then the word came in: the Florida Secretary of State's Web page was showing a difference of only 2,100 votes. The projections of the remaining vote and even the actual numbers were wrong. Still, Dan fussed and futzed: "Well, we changed it once, and we're not going to do it again." WHAT! Minutes passed as their amazement grew. Mind you, they were refusing to concede that their PROJECTIONS were less accurate than the official state returns. Dan's Texas roots got the best of him as he suggested Jeb might want to send in Texas Marshals to impound the ballots: "There's got to be suggestions beginning to build that maybe somebody out there is trying to steal an election." He instantly backtracked. The numbers narrowed: 1700, 1500, 700, 270! At 4 a.m. Rather gave up: "Somebody needs to begin explaining to me why Florida has not been pulled back to the undecided category." It was a new ball game. On ABC, normally dapper Peter Jennings was punch drunk, weaving too close to the cameras and sporadically incoherent. Brokaw intoned: "We don't just have egg on our face, we have omelet all over our suit." Something stronger, Tom. (This same phrase was also uttered by Jennings.)
Gore, seconds from conceding his dreams on rotten information, never appeared and waited for the mess of a mandatory recount. At that point he was well behind in the total popular vote — he would go on to win it by 540,000 (Dec 22).
Meanwhile, hard by the lush Ocala National Forest, 20 miles west of Daytona in Deland, a silver, battery-powered credit card-sized memory card in an Election System AccuVote 2000 optical ballot-scanning machine had lost its mind, recording negative 16,022 Gore votes, 2813‡ extra Bush votes, and 9,880 for the Socialist Workers candidate in one Volusia Co. precinct (#216) that had only 585 registered voters (the SW, James Harris, got only 11,000 votes nationwide). Volusia election supervisor Deanie Lowe recited, "Our county attorney came to me and said, 'I just saw the craziest thing: Gore's total went backward ' I said 'You're tired, you're not seeing it right, that's impossible'." The Deland machine "didn't upload [over phone lines], so they brought the whole machine into the office ... (took) out the card ... and we directly uploaded into the computer." At 10:02 p.m., the machine dumped its corrupted contents: +19,000 net erroneous votes for Bush into the Volusia computer. Volusia was instantly posting their numbers on their county Web site, which they "shut down around 11-12pm. We think.. VNS was picking it up from the Daytona News/Journal site that had taken it off of ours," Lowe clarified Dec 22. "The County stopped updating their web site and we were left with the incorrect numbers till the next morning," said the News/Journal's Matt Grimison. VNS apparently entered Volusia's wacky numbers just after 2:05 a.m. into their (and the networks) system, causing a 22,000-vote net rise in Bush's lead. Delayed 4 hours, they must have known those numbers were suspect since they revealed a large vote drop for Gore that should have triggered human and computer alarms, as instantly happened in Duval Co.. Lowe continued: "We discovered what the problem was; after they [the manufacturers in Dallas] walked us through the process, we fed the ballots through a different machine, we then hand counted them ... we backed out the bad figures ... and ... put in the good figures" and transmitted the corrected results to Florida Election Hdqtr. around 2:50 a.m., too late to stop the greatest broadcast error in history. Reportedly, there was another VNS data entry error in Brevard Co. that subtracted 4000 votes from Gore, not corrected until near 4am. A rush of Democratic votes from Palm Beach County then brought the race to an effective tie on the Florida election website.
The Washington Post reports: Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said: "The notion that you'd have the [first] cousin of one presidential candidate ... in a position to call a state is unthinkable. Fox's call precipitated all the other networks' calls. That call — wrong, unnecessary, misguided, foolish — has helped create a sense that this election went to Bush, was pulled back and he is waiting to be restored." The "monkey-see, monkey-do" style of pack press coverage had finally provoked a disaster. John W. Ellis IV hadn't just called it early; he was in constant phone contact with Jeb [Ellis Bush] and George W. discussing developments. He was so partisan in his distaste for Clinton/Gore that he'd resigned from writing columns for The Boston Globe, stating, "I am loyal to my cousin, Gov. George Bush. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone outside my immediate family." The president of Fox News, Roger Ailes, is a longtime Bush and Republican political strategist; Fox reportedly has a distinctly right-wing bent. It was as if CNN had sent Mussolini to cover World War Two. Cronkite is distressed by the conflict of interest: "I find it hard to understand ... We have to recognize that the [Rupert] Murdoch interests were particularly strong for Bush." Incredibly, Murdoch defended Ellis, even his chat-line antics with his cousins, and Ellis bragged about his role in a magazine story.
I think the incredible second bad call, after the outrage of the first, was almost more predicated on the networks' desire to wrap it up, to go home to sleep, to stop expensive coverage for a small audience, rather than an absolute belief it was the truth. It was simply too early, too close, too important, too uncertain. After Fox jumped the gun, the lemmings roared over the cliff, an ultimate example of the risks of pack reporting. "I think that's just their desire to be first," said the Dem operative. Cronkite explained: "When any one of the competing networks makes a call ... there is considerable pressure on decision desks to do something, do something, and they're inclined to yield to others' opinions ... They've been sitting there biting their nails, just about to make that call — when the other person makes it, they pile on." VNS never called the election for Bush; that was the networks' call, according to Cronkite. "The networks are trying to put the onus on VNS, which is a mistake." Dan Rather did say on Imus, with breathtaking hypocrisy, that "VNS should be plowed under with salt." VNS is the networks' baby. Fox and NBC have said they wouldn't use VNS again, but VNS has an enormous, professional organization- not that easily duplicated by a network- and individual network calls may be even more influenced by partisan passions in a group like Fox.
Only Associated Press, concerned by the large unreported vote in Democratic precincts on the Gold Coast, never called the election for Bush, despite enormous pressure. They had an independent network of poll reporters that gave them new results every five minutes rather than VNS's 20. Reportedly, when the networks did, the actual votes showed Bush had an almost insurmountable lead — but the numbers were all wrong, including a vastly underestimated remaining vote: 100,000 — when it was actually about 280,000. A half a million more Floridians voted this year, some for the first time.
Over a half million largely elderly absentees normally voted in Florida; the Parties (10:1 Republican) had also solicited tens of thousands of voters by mailing out absentee ballot requests like candy (the alteration of which in Seminole County became a lawsuit). These absentees, vastly underestimated by VNS, were never surveyed in exit polls or measured in most precinct counts; counties added them to totals at different times, many days or weeks later. In fact, this election revealed that they are often never added to the totals in states, unless they can change the result of an election.
CBS Veep Genelius Friday conceded nothing in the blown second call: "Many newspapers did the same thing (blaming the cart for the horse). ... It looked as if Bush had a very safe lead ... that margin became smaller and smaller. The data coming in took a very bizarre turn in that the gap narrowed so dramatically, so quickly. That's highly unusual." What was unusual was that, after their earlier gaffe, they didn't proceed with extreme caution. "We want to see if some of the models that have served us so well ..., if they didn't work this time around. It's safe to say, 'We haven't seen anything like this before.'" No one has.
Maybe they should be penalized — big time: $3 million apiece for perhaps hijacking the American Presidency ($10 mil for Fox). They called it wrong three times. Without the bestowed legitimacy of that last grievously mistaken call, Republicans probably couldn't have delayed and prevented the manual recount, and Gore would have emerged the victor. After the first error they should have been extremely cautious — but Dan's early assurance was that of a drunk before he grabs the keys and peels out. "Most children learn the stove is hot the first time they touch it," says ADA's Issacs acidly. Even afterwards, their behavior was one of mild chagrin, not groveling humiliation or abject apology. Rather even said that the candidates had to be tough to play in this league. Can't touch us. With all the mergers, TV networks are America. Louisiana GOP Rep. Billy Tauzin plans investigating network malfeasance in the election-night debacle, though his focus is a bizarre conspiracy to delay reporting Bush wins, when the most striking thing about the election map was the vast sea of red. Most networks have announced investigations; to their credit, CBS included Annenberg School of Communication head Kathleen Hall Jamison.
But there was another egregious error the networks made. In a careful reading of news accounts it was obvious that Gore was surging two to six percentage points across the board by Monday morning, and the last Zogby poll, consistently the most accurate, had Gore ahead by 1-2 points November 6 and 7. Neither enormously pertinent facts were mentioned on any broadcast I saw (three or four networks): the candidates went into election night with Bush ahead by three to five percentage points on the networks, creating an expectation- a pressure for his victory that may have played a part in the second blown call. It's likely this "shift" was the numbers returning to where they always really were ... or it may have been reaction to Bush's drunk-driving conviction and attempts to hide it. "Anything that flew in the face of conventional wisdom ... they ignored," criticized Issacs. CBS's poll had Gore ahead by one point on November 7, according to their Web site and pollsters, but I never saw it mentioned on the air.
Polls have been so squirrelly, so erratic, so erroneous this election, that they threaten the electoral process. November 3-4, one poll had Washington Senator Gorton ahead 50 to 42 percent; two days later his opponent (RealNetworks' Maria Cantwell, who had spent $10 mil of her own money) was ahead 50 to 43 percent.* Huge shift. No, baloney. Lousy procedures, extreme extrapolation, false assumptions, bad numbers. In the presidential race, Gore and Bush's respective numbers whipsawed 16-19 points in a week, two times. The truth was Bush and Gore were never more than two points apart in the last week, and probably never more than six points apart, EVER!! Issacs thinks flaky coverage drove the polls: "[The networks said] Bush was up, we had to knock him down, Gore went up, we knocked him down, we got them even ... let's play up Nader." Cronkite is more forgiving: "This race ... is so close that I don't doubt that there was shifting back and forth ... within a day or two, with every development of the campaign."
In fact, from the extreme daily variations in polls, it seems pollsters were deliberately accentuating shifts to make them more marketable. If the numbers changed radically every day, they could sell them again: "You have to get these new numbers." The Gallup USA Today/CNN/et al poll was notorious for this: it was consistently way off of the others, changed radically daily, and each participant, applying their own statistical analysis (often twisted by their biases) would get numbers two to five points apart from the same raw numbers. They were also skewed by the small sample in doing one- to two-day polls instead of the far more reliable five-day polls that didn't show such absurd variations. These worthless polls became THE story, bandied about like competing Macy's Day balloons, while Bush's mistakes were left unchallenged. "All of them are looking into a very foggy crystal ball," Issacs says.
* Incredibly, two historic mistakes were not enough — the damage was non-partisan: in Washington state, Cantwell was given the TV Senate victory election night, although she was 3,000 votes behind and there were 900,000 votes uncounted (half all votes are absentee) out of 2.4 million total. At 3:18 p.m. on November 8, MSNBC wizards returned the contest to undecided, where it should have always been. "It was clearly a rush to judgment," griped Gorton spokeswoman Heidi Kelly. "Our NBC affiliate" — KING-5 Seattle, a local station wiser and more cautious than it's parent — "pushed hard not to call it ... and never did." Until November 21 Gorton led, but Cantwell finished with a 1,953 vote lead. After a mandatory recount, Cantwell won by 2,250, leaving the Senate 50-50 (Cheney's Veep-ship will swing it to Repub, but two elderly Republican Senators could retire or die this term in states with Dem governors).
Mistakes can and will happen: VNS wasn't completely at fault here — they actually have a stellar record of accuracy. In fact, if one accepts the Miami Herald analysis that claims Gore would have won by 23,000 if votes were tallied properly, VNS was correct in calling FL for Gore; they never said Bush won. The blame lies in the networks' pathological reliance on polls and destructive urge to report the news before it happens. Television networks have a moral, journalistic, and perhaps legal obligation to wait and get it right when it comes to possibly changing the will of the people. "Let's get off this unseemly haste," implores Cronkite. This insidious policy of hiring hard-core partisans as reporters, analysts or hosts (or election night supervisors) should be curtailed. We shouldn't kill the messenger, unless he's carrying lies.
Copyright © 2000 Michael Hammerschlag
— Michael Hammerschlag (email@example.com) has written commentaries and articles for the Providence Journal, Seattle Times, Honolulu Advertiser and Columbia Journalism Review. He is also a former TV news reporter. More of his work is available on his Web site.
Author's Note: Walter Cronkite, 84, is still sharp and active: lecturing, writing and doing specials for Discovery. We got to chatting about our time in Russia — he was there from 1946 to 1949 as UPI chief during the worst period of the Cold War, when foreigners were routinely disappeared in the mass murders, while I was there at the best time in the last 1000 years, 1991-94, when the people were intoxicated with the collapse of the Communist party, loved Americans and a penny was worth a dollar. "We were frightened that we might be thrown in the Lubyanka any day ... One of our number was charged with espionage ... he was turned in by his secretary who they arrested and co-opted and, oh boy, we were very concerned we all were going to get picked up."
Cronkite is worried about the lasting effects of the Florida foul-ups: "People must look with considerable skepticism on their own voting procedures. I thought about my own vote. My gosh, did I pull that lever correctly, did I punch the right buttons on that thing, and, if I did, were [my votes] counted? It places a serious impediment on people's confidence in their democracy. The very base of it is people's right to have their vote cast and counted." He still has that famous rich, gravelly baritone voice that for 45 years was the sound of truth to Americans; it was all I could do to not ask him to say, "And that's the way it is ..." rather than his notably self-effacing, "I'm an icon, which means I'm an old fart." Not so, Walter.
A personal note: I used an optically-read pen-marked ballot for the first time, when I got home I wondered, "Where were the referendum questions?" They were on the reverse side, which I'd never seen before on a ballot, so even I voted incompletely.
Walter Cronkite speaks out on the crisis in journalism and the need for MediaChannel.
AS THE MEDIA WATCH THE WORLD, WE WATCH THE MEDIA.