An Armchair Pundit's Guide to Election Night on TV

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Better plan on an early dinner tonight.

It is possible that, at 7 p.m., network anchors and their map manipulators will make projections that strongly suggest Sen. Barack Obama is on his way to winning the presidency. But if Obama fails to capture a handful of key states by 8 p.m. or so, then Sen. John McCain has a shot at getting to the magic 270 and everyone could be in for a long night.

For those keeping score, the biggest early bellwethers are the once reliably Republican states of Virginia and Indiana -- where polls close at 7.

"These are canaries in the coal mine," said Charlie Cook, the veteran analyst and NBC contributor. "When they start dying, there are huge problems for the Republicans."

"If Obama wins Virginia, he's won the election," said Tad Devine, who worked for John F. Kerry and Al Gore. "It says Obama was able to do something we only dreamt of four years ago."

Mike Murphy, a former McCain adviser, said his onetime boss "has basically got two strikes and you're out. Any two bad things happen -- losing Virginia and North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, Virginia and Ohio -- and it's over . . . I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but I know where my crying towel is."

Network executives say they will be cautious about making projections, given the undeniable problems with exit polls in the past two White House contests. Obama, for instance, might be ahead in Virginia, but by a small enough margin that the networks hold off on awarding him its 13 electoral votes.

Down-ballot races could provide a clue, analysts said. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is expected to prevail in Kentucky, where polls close by 7 p.m., but if he is trailing it would be a bad omen for McCain. The same goes for Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, another 7 p.m. state where Cook thinks Obama has an outside shot.

Since the networks' policy is to refrain from calling any state until all its polls have closed, the trick is to listen for code phrases. If Obama appears headed for victory, said Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president, "you'll hear a lot of language, from all of us, 'It's going to be very difficult for John McCain to pull this out.' "

Television's latest touch-screen maps, which can turn every correspondent into a hyperactive John Madden diagramming a flea-flicker pass, will be a colorful blur. The handicappers say Obama has a reasonably firm hold on the blue states carried by Kerry four years ago, so nearly all the action is in the red states won by President Bush.

The two largest red-state prizes that McCain needs are Ohio, where polls close at 7:30, and Florida, an 8 p.m. state. If the Republican nominee loses either, the airwaves will be filled with chatter about how his path to victory has dramatically narrowed.

The one blue state that the McCain camp hopes to steal is Pennsylvania, where polls close at 8. Such an upset would unleash waves of punditry about a closer-than-expected race -- that is, according to expectations set by the media. Missouri is another key 8 p.m. state.

Even if McCain holds his strongholds plus Virginia, Florida and Ohio -- but loses Iowa, where Obama is ahead -- he would be 10 electoral votes short of victory. McCain would have to win two of these three Western states: Nevada (five electoral votes), New Mexico (five) and Colorado (nine). Polls close in Colorado and New Mexico at 9 p.m. Eastern time and in Nevada an hour later. If the race isn't settled by 10, when Iowa voting also ends, viewers might want to haul out more snacks.

The 11 p.m. states -- California, Oregon, Washington -- are all solid bets to be bathed in blue. So if the country is up late, the election will probably revolve around the three Mountain West battlegrounds that went for Bush last time.

Exhaustion alert: If, in this scenario, Obama takes Nevada and New Mexico and McCain carries Colorado, the candidates could wind up in a 269 to 269 tie.

At ABC, as at other networks, Senior Vice President Jeffrey Schneider said, projections will be based on actual votes, exit polls, historical data and telephone surveys of absentee voters.

"We're going to take it slow," he said. "Our only desire is to be right, not to be first."

No one has forgotten the debacle of 2000, when the networks called Florida for Gore, pulled it back and then called it for Bush -- led by Fox News, which declared him the president-elect at 2:16 a.m. -- before the muddle that triggered a 36-day recount melodrama.

On Election Day 2004, exit polls showed Kerry piling up sizable margins in unexpected places. The surveys were way off. Fox gave Ohio to Bush at 12:41 a.m., bringing him to 269, but when voters woke up the next morning, the networks still hadn't called the race because two other states were deemed too close.

"We couldn't understand how we could be winning so big in so many places," Devine said, recalling the inaccurate exit surveys. "It was stunning, actually." Tonight, he says, "if everyone starts saying these races are too close to call, that feeling in the pit of your stomach will come back."

The widespread media assumption, based on electoral projections over the past two weeks, is that Obama is a substantial favorite tonight. If that turns out to be wrong, journalists will have an enormous amount of explaining to do. If it turns out to be right, the anchors will be announcing the election of the first black president.

"The challenge for the networks on election night is, how do you capture the historic nature of it without going gaga and fawning?" said Cook, who expects Obama to win. "If you go too far in one direction, you risk playing into every negative stereotype about the media."

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