It’s a small matter, I know, compared with the historic issues now obsessing the commentariat, such as the fiscal cliff and how many mistresses and admirers former Army Gen. David Petraeus could keep in the air simultaneously.
But before we say goodbye to the Campaign 2012, I would like to point out that the entire drama of a close election, as played out in the news media on Election Day and evening, is basically fake. Like broadcasters (including a young Ronald Reagan) presenting baseball games in the early days of radio, the television networks know who’s going to win the game and more or less how it’s going to play out, inning-by-inning.
They know this primarily because of research conducted by the National Election Exit Poll on Election Day. And yet, in a perverse exercise of high-mindedness, the major news organizations have all agreed not to report the results of exit polls until after the polls have closed in a particular state.
It has evolved into a semireligious ritual. At 11 a.m. on Election Day, representatives of ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press entered a “quarantine room” with no telephones or Internet access. There, they sat and analyzed the exit polls until 5 p.m., when they released what they had to their employers, who got the data directly for the rest of the evening.
Exit-poll data is supposed to be used for demographic insights only — not to predict the result. You can say, “Republicans are doing well tonight among upper-middle-class white men aged 35 to 45, wearing a red sweater vest and answering to the name of ‘Champ.’ ” But you can’t say, “Chances are better than even that Obama’s got it in the bag.”
You can learn a lot from tiny samplings, comparing them with past results. By 6 on election night, CNN undoubtedly knew that President Obama was going to win reelection. And they pretty much knew the Electoral College count. Or at least they knew it reliably enough to want to deny this information to their viewers.
Thus there was this stilted dialogue, airing sometime between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on CNN, between John King and Wolf Blitzer about Vigo County, Ind.:
“One little ad-lib here, if I can,” said King. “We’re starting to get results in Kentucky and in Indiana. Tiny results, 2 percent of the vote. I want to show you a little place in Indiana. Vigo County, 1.7 percent of the population. . . . Only twice — only twice since 1888 has Vigo County been wrong in picking a president. Why? Good question. But since the 1950s, this county has been right. It’s filling in blue at the moment. Look at that. That’s only 17 percent of the vote. We’ll see how it goes tonight, but you watch it blue now. If it’s blue at the end of the night, we’ll see if Vigo County’s streak continues.”
King seemed to be saying that if Vigo County stayed blue (that is, voted Democratic), it would continue its streak of picking the winner. That would seem to imply that Democrats were going to carry the day. King arguably saved himself at the end with a “we’ll see how it goes tonight,” but he sure sounded like someone assuming a Democratic victory at a time when he and everyone else were telling viewers that the race was too close to call. (For those of you scoring at home: Vigo County went for Obama by 339 votes.)