CBS has moved its decision desk into the newsroom and assigned a correspondent, Mika Brzezinski, to explain to viewers how the exit polls are being used. Graphics will prominently feature the word "ESTIMATED" when states are called. "Our mantra is to be transparent," Mason said.
The number of exit polls on Nov. 2 will be roughly the same as four years ago, with about 2,000 voters being questioned in a key state. But projections can be thrown off by the growing trend toward absentee voting. Lenski and Mitofsky have ordered telephone polls in 13 key states, including Florida, to screen for absentee voters, and those surveys will begin as much as a week before Election Day. Only three such surveys were done in 2000.
This was a crucial issue in the televised fiasco four years ago. An internal investigation by Voter News Service found that the organization had no reliable way of estimating the number of absentee ballots in Florida, which were almost double what it had expected. The news service also dramatically underestimated the number of Florida votes that remained uncounted at 2 a.m.
This year, Lenski said, absentee ballots are expected to account for as much as 20 percent of Florida votes, rising to an estimated 50 percent in New Mexico and Colorado and 70 percent in Washington state. Any formula that does not adequately account for these early voters could be a prescription for disaster.
The quality-control system in 2000 was so poor that the media consortium failed to reject an early report that 95 percent of Florida's Duval County had voted for Gore. This time, Lenski said, if the numbers do not appear to match historical patterns, "big red flags are going to go up."
Fox, whose decision desk was then headed by John Ellis, President Bush's first cousin, was the first to call the race for Bush, and the other networks followed suit within four minutes. Network officials insist they will not be stampeded this time.
"I don't think there's any shame, if someone else is calling the race, in waiting to make sure you are absolutely right," Wheatley said.
Not that all traces of nervousness have been banished. "Are we 100 percent sure? Nothing is 100 percent," Fox's Moody said. "But we feel better about it, going into this one."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.