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UCLA

How Do Newsrooms "Call" Elections?

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By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Oct 1, 2012 3:55 PM


Amid the frenzy of Election Day, how do broadcasters decide which candidate has carried a state?

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Exit polls are just one piece of data that analysts use to predict the outcome of an election.

National newsrooms have their hands full on Election Day: tracking ballots, polling voters and trying to avoid speculation. Amid the frenzy, they must use whatever credible information they can gather to decide which candidate has carried a state. How do they decide whether to call a state "red" or "blue"?

UCLA's Department of Political Science offered a behind-the-scenes look at this process, hosting the forum, "And the Winner of the 2012 Presidential Election is ...! An Insider Discussion of How Networks Call Elections and Why They Sometimes Get It Wrong."

Moderated by UCLA Associate Professor Lynn Vavreck, the Sept. 11 presentation featured Douglas Rivers, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a consultant for CBS News, and Daron Shaw, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, who consults for Fox News.

The two guests belong to a select group of political analysts who sit at the "decision desks" of the major news networks, where they try to determine which way a state is going. One method is the exit poll, which queries voters as they leave their polling stations.

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This map, created in July, shows the projected Electoral College votes for the upcoming 2012 presidential election. On Election Day, political analysts will use the data they have available to them to decide how accurate this map really is.

Generally, broadcasters use exit polls to help predict the outcome of an election before all the votes are counted, but it also provides "the demographics and the opinions and what people say are the most important issues," Rivers said. "Exit polls are fundamentally about making news coverage more interesting; providing a bit of color."

But the analysts also factor in the results from the absentee vote (which occurs before Election Day) and from sample precincts (on Election Day). If the race is close, they watch the election returns, just like the rest of us.

According to Shaw, the "difficult" calls are actually easier in some sense, because the analysts must wait for the data. "The hard states are the five-to-seven-point states, where you have to make a decision," Shaw said. "For instance, a tough call for us would be if pre-election data show Michigan at five points for Obama, and we get a five-to-six-point margin in the exit poll. How long do we want to wait on a Michigan call?"

Rivers added that "On election night, there are 51 presidential races that need to be called. Some you could call right now. There are 33 or 34 Senate races, and there are some gubernatorial races. ... [But a big deal this year will be] who controls the Senate and the House. I think the House is probably going to be fairly clear early-on [Democrat], but the Senate is going to be the most suspenseful."

"And they're related, too," Shaw added. "The presidential election influences the threshold for control of the Senate. And the last time around was a bear because you had this Alaska race that didn't turn out to be influential, but could have been influential. And there is nothing worse than 4 o'clock in the morning, waiting for returns from the Bering Strait."

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