WASHINGTON – Four years ago,Americans stayed up all night because the television networks were too rash in calling the presidential election.
They stayed up late again Tuesday,this time because the networks were reluctant to make calls.
News anchors trudged through predictions Tuesday night,careful not to make any prematurely. President Bush led throughout the night,but anchors cautioned that until enough data was available in battleground states,it was anybody's race.
It wasn't until 11:40 p.m. that Bush had a clear advantage. That's when ABC called Florida for Bush,with CBS following five minutes later. The other networks maintained that Florida was too close to call until after midnight.
Fox News Channel,which made a bold move in first calling Florida for Bush in 2000,stayed behind ABC,CBS and CNN,calling it at about 12:20 Wednesday morning.
Because the networks had projected Kerry to take Pennsylvania about 11 p.m.,the race came down to Ohio's vote,the last of the three states critical to the outcome.
By 12:40,Fox called it for Bush,and NBC followed suit 20 minutes later. But the other networks had not projected a winner by well after 2 a.m.
The networks' reluctance to call states “reflects their intention to show huge caution,” said Martin Plissner,author of “The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.”
Plissner,former political director for CBS and a veteran of the network's election night broadcasts,said the networks,which were relying on the same data to make their predictions,hesitated even on some obvious calls.
Going into Tuesday's newscasts,the networks were still reeling with embarrassment from their decisions in the razor-thin 2000 race.
In 2000,the major networks and CNN prematurely called the race for Democrat Al Gore about 8 p.m.,then retracted their calls after concluding that the race for Florida's 25 electoral votes was still too close to call.
With Fox weighing in first,the news outlets later declared President Bush had won Florida,and thus the election. But in the middle of the night,the networks had to retract that call as well.
“Here they were all night long,‘It's Gore,it's Bush,'” said Lee Thornton,a former CNN and CBS reporter who now teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “They were very embarrassed four years ago.”
The race wasn't settled until mid-December,when the U.S. Supreme Court halted the Florida recount,giving Bush the presidency.
The system that the networks used in 2000 for exit polling and return reports failed to account for absentee ballots,the chief reason that the networks' early call for Gore was wrong,Plissner said.
Plissner,said a malfunctioning voting machine in Volusia County under-reported returns for Gore.
The networks made several changes for Tuesday's election,including dropping the system they relied on in 2000,the Voter News Service. This year they again pooled resources,creating the National Election Pool,but the new system worked differently,Plissner said.
While VNS conducted exit polls and reported actual vote returns,the National Election Pool split those duties. The Associated Press reported election returns,and Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International handled exit polling and election prediction models.
Veteran pollster Warren Mitofsky,who is credited with inventing exit polls in 1960s,was influential in when networks made calls,Plissner said.
Plissner,who worked with Mitofsky at CBS,said even though Mitofsky was involved in CNN's and CBS's incorrect calls in 2000,he's considered the best in the business.
“I don't think any network executive wants to be the one to explain to a congressional committee why he made the call that the others refused to make,” Plissner said.