Blitzer then said thoughtfully: “Could be a bellwether, as they say; could be an indication of what’s going on. We’re going to watch all these states, all these counties, all these polling precincts very closely.” Then he tossed to Anderson Cooper, who added, “Who knew?”
The answer is that all three of them knew, or someone in the studio with them knew. But they were forbidden to say. When I worked at CNN, I was even forbidden to say that I was forbidden to say.
This is not merely an American insanity. In some European countries, reporting the results of exit polls (or sometimes of polls taken close to the election) is actually a criminal offense. The reason is that reporting the result while the polls are still open somehow devalues the votes of people who haven’t yet voted. This might discourage turnout, and even change the result.
Is this a valid concern? No. Now children, listen closely: Your vote is just as valuable — or, if you prefer, just as worthless — no matter when you exercise your franchise. Get over it. No national election (not even the 2000 presidential election) is ever decided by one vote. If it ever were, every voter at all times of day would be equally implicated. Exit polls can’t predict the outcome of a contest that close anyway.
If it bothers you that the result has been decided before you cast your vote, that unfortunately will still be true whether the exit polls — and the conclusions experts draw from them — are made public or not. Yes, the polls and experts can get it wrong. But the concern here is that they usually get it right. How can it devalue your vote to give you information you wouldn’t otherwise have? What unfair advantage does an early- morning voter (or someone who voted weeks ago, absentee) get from his or her lack of information?
Yes, voting is a good thing and should be encouraged. But people shouldn’t be tricked into voting, which is what this artificial suppression of information amounts to. And yes, it’s possible that some people — rationally or otherwise — will decide not to vote if the winner has already been announced. But there is no reason to think that one candidate’s supporters are more likely than another’s to drop out, so that this could change the result.
It’s easy to see why the TV networks don’t mind putting on a play if the suspense keeps people watching past 6:30 p.m. Especially when they get civic brownie points for doing so. And why is this so important? Maybe it’s not so very important — a writer needs some hobbyhorses, and this is one of mine. It amazes me that, with the encouragement of the government, not to mention an endless string of foundations and commissions and pompous individuals, some of the biggest players in the media business conspire to present a view of the world that they know to be false.
It’s as if the government staged the whole walk-on-the-Moon thing in a warehouse somewhere, or as if Obama was born in Kenya. Except this one is for real.
Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.