Calling elections is still an art, not a science

Picture a hotel kitchen bustling with workers preparing a banquet for a hall full of people.

Servers hustle to get salads to the tables while chefs and assistants feverishly prepare entrees amid rising clouds of steam and tensely shouted instructions.

Then, just as the servers are ready to rush the plates of food to the tables, word comes that the main course isn’t quite right.

It’s got to be pulled back and reworked — in a hurry.

That’s as good an analogy as I can come up with to describe the newsroom on Tuesday night as voting results came pouring in from near and far.

The process of putting a newspaper together on deadline is often called "the daily miracle." That’s never more true than on the night of a presidential election.

One way or another, the stories, headlines and photos come together on page layouts that quickly are transformed into page negatives, then printing plates.

Within a few minutes of the scheduled start time, the final plates are slapped into place on the press, the giant printing cylinders begin turning and blank newsprint becomes a newspaper. Within a few minutes, papers by the hundreds spit out onto conveyor belts for delivery to waiting trucks.

That is, unless the story flip-flops 180 degrees, as it did Tuesday night.

News Editor Mark Carlson, in a note written at 2:04 a.m., summarized it like this: "A very difficult night. We were ready to send out the last pages … at 12:45 a.m. but had to pull them back to avoid a ‘Dewey defeats Truman’ headline."

With polls closing at 8 p.m. and presses needing to roll about midnight for most papers, guessing the winners of political contests has always been an election-night staple.

Before exit polls and computer models, political reporters would evaluate results as they came in and make the call based on their knowledge of the politics and makeup of voters in different areas.

Whether the vote was for city council or the presidency, they’d look at what votes had been counted and which were yet to come in. If the Republican was leading and most of the votes still outstanding were from rural areas, the story might declare the contest decided based on the conventional wisdom that rural voters tended to favor the GOP.

But if the city precincts, often a stronghold for Democrats, were still being counted or turnout was especially high, the story would need to waffle, saying that the candidate was in the lead but the outcome was still in doubt when the presses rolled.

Hunch, instinct and experience were the political reporter’s tool kit, not polls, computers and expert analysts. It was a simpler time, and the system worked. Readers usually had their election results the next day even though all the votes hadn’t been counted by the time the presses rolled.

But as Tuesday’s election showed, calling elections is still an art, not a science.

So why don’t newspapers, the networks and wire services just wait until the results are certain?

That’s simple. People want to know who the winners and losers are as quickly as possible, and intense competition leads the media to do everything possible to be the first with the story.

That’s why the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline was printed in 1948 and why TV anchormen and newspapers scrambled on election night to declare Florida for one candidate or the other.

Undoubtedly, journalists and others will do much analysis and soul searching over the next few months about how the 2000 election was reported. That may result in better processes, tighter criteria and more caution before a tight race is called next time.

But I have no doubt that when the next big election night rolls around, journalists still will be calling races and people still will be waiting with anticipation.

  • Whenever the paper goes to press late, it puts a strain on everyone. That’s especially true for the men and women who deliver The Herald during the early morning hours every day of the year. Readers also suffer because papers are delivered late, sometimes after they’ve already left for work.

    I’d like to apologize for the inconvenience the late papers Wednesday morning caused for both carriers and readers. Thanks to the carriers for their dedication and hard work delivering the paper under difficult circumstances.

    And thanks to readers for understanding if their paper didn’t arrive when it was expected.

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