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On Election Night, Networks Plan to Proceed With Caution

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

The television networks could be in for a long night on Tuesday.

"Mathematically," CBS Senior Vice President Linda Mason says of the election coverage, "you could know by 10 for the House and 11 for the Senate." But, she says, "it could go on until all hours of the early morning."

"We have learned from past mistakes," says NBC anchor Brian Williams. "I start from the assumption I will wake up with a sore back on my couch" after an all-nighter.

"There's likely to be a lot of hedging," says ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "You may know it, but you can't say it."

If the Democrats capture the House, television anchors won't be able to project that until they are sure the party has locked in a 15-seat gain. Fortunately for them, 35 of the 53 closest races, as handicapped by analyst Charlie Cook, are in states where polls close by 8 p.m. Eastern time.

In the Senate, with fewer seats in play, the math is simpler. If one or two of the most vulnerable Republicans -- in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Missouri -- win decisively, the networks will know fairly early that the Democrats won't be able to reach their magic number of six needed to take control. But even if the Democrats sweep those races -- and hold New Jersey, which is in doubt -- the networks still won't be able to forecast a Democratic takeover until enough votes are counted in Montana, where polls close at 10 p.m. Eastern. The Democrats would have to unseat Montana's embattled GOP senator, Conrad Burns, to gain control.

The biggest behind-the-scenes change in network coverage involves what has been dubbed the Quarantine Room. Determined to avoid a rerun of recent years, when its exit polls leaked out by early afternoon to the Drudge Report, Slate and other Web sites, a media consortium is allowing two people from each of the networks and the Associated Press entree to a windowless room in New York. All cellphones, laptops and BlackBerrys will be confiscated. The designated staffers will pore over the exit polls but will not be allowed to communicate with their offices until 5 p.m.

The consortium, called the National Election Pool, is conducting no surveys for House races. The exit polling will take place for Senate and gubernatorial contests in 32 states with competitive races.

The recent track record with such polling has been pockmarked with failure. There was, of course, the debacle of election night 2000, when the networks used polling data from Florida to prematurely award the presidency, twice, within hours. In 2002, the network consortium's predecessor, Voter News Service, suffered a computer meltdown and pulled the plug on its exit polls. Two years ago, its sample was so skewed that the group's surveys showed Sen. John Kerry beating President Bush well into the night.

Williams is acutely aware of that history. "I called Florida for Al Gore, too," he says, recalling his anchoring role on MSNBC. "It was a horrible moment." Now, he says, "we have all kinds of fail-safes built into the system."

All the networks are using what are called "precinct models" -- taking into account such factors as a district's voting history and level of absentee ballots -- in gauging whether it is safe to make projections based on partial vote counts.

Much of the action will be on cable news. The broadcast networks are limiting themselves to hour-long specials at 10 p.m. (plus ABC's "Nightline" at 11:30 p.m.), along with news cut-ins and updated specials (mainly for West Coast audiences) at 1 a.m. "It's going to be a long night," says Marty Ryan, executive producer at Fox News, which is doing some exit polling to supplement the network pool surveys. "House races are notoriously difficult to call. How do you call 50 House races? The fact of the matter is, you don't. You have to wait until a lot of returns are in."

"Frankly," says Sam Feist, CNN's political director, "we're not in any rush to call individual House races. Our mantra is simple: It's better to be right than to be first. We're going to be extremely cautious."

As always, the networks will be looking for early bellwethers. Three Republican House members are considered in jeopardy in Indiana, where polls close at 7 p.m. If one or more go down, that will affect the tone of the coverage.

If the dominoes aren't falling the Republicans' way, there may be broad hints about how it's "shaping up to be a big Democratic night" well before any network makes an official projection.

But if the races are tight, network analysts say, the outcome in the House might not be known until Thursday -- or days after that if recounts are involved. Another complicating factor would be delayed counting in Oregon and Washington state, which rely almost entirely on mail ballots.

A big political wave can wash away much of the drama. During the Republican sweep of 1994, the networks began talking of a GOP takeover of the House as early as 8:45 but made no official predictions until hours later.

With the level of public interest -- and the volume of television coverage -- much greater than in a typical midterm election, the networks are turning to some of their veterans. At CBS, former anchor Bob Schieffer will join Katie Couric, who will be headlining election night for the first time. At NBC, longtime anchor Tom Brokaw will join Williams on the set.

"This won't have the moment of a presidential night," says Williams. "But it's a little more than Olympic trials."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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