Exit the Exit Polls

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The push to call elections first has long been the nuclear arms race of the TV-news business. Everyone highmindedly deplored it, and yet everyone did it because if they didn't, the other guy was going to. Then came the 2000 election — when faulty data from the Voter News Service led the media to prematurely call the Florida race twice — which was the equivalent of the Cold War movie "Fail-Safe": a cautionary tale against overrelying on supposedly infallible automatic systems. If the process wasn't fixed, the guardians of media solemnly intoned, someday we would create an exit-poll system so deadly that it would destroy the Earth!

So yesterday's snafu, when the VNS (the joint media exit-polling consortium) announced at the last minute it could not confidently provide poll numbers, was a kind of forced unilateral disarmament. Compelled to rely, caveman-like, on actual votes, no network was able to call an election five seconds after the polls closed. Nor could their pundits chew over the VNS's usual "voter attitudes" surveys that in past years gave no-brainer observations the weight of scientific breakthroughs. (Looks like gun-owning white men went in big for the GOP this year! Who knew?)

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Denied their insta-projections, the networks hauled out their windbags to spend hours vamping about the "meaning" of an election whose results they couldn't announce yet. On MSNBC, Democratic-strategist-turned-populist scold Pat Caddell and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan agreed that the Democrats were as much in the pockets of big business as the GOP, but disagreed over whether this was a bad thing. On Fox, Brit Hume practically bragged that the network was waiting longer to announce key races than some of its competitors. On NBC, Tom Brokaw and Rush Limbaugh seemed positively cozy while filling time (has that hearing ailment made Rush go all squishy on us)? And on CNN, the aggressively folksy Aaron Brown seemed determined to offer a homespun truism about every state in the Union: "There's always a guy named Moe running for office in Minnesota... It's an old family name!"

CNN was one of the beneficiaries of the VNS foul-up, having prepared a backup system — called RealVote, because the new, digital-age CNN doesn't have time for spaces between words — that enabled it to call several races before its competition. To rub it in, the network even added "CNN" and "VNS" columns to its graphics, with checkmarks to show which elections it had called and VNS hadn't. (Casual viewers may have been surprised to find out that it was the Republicans, and not this new "CNN" party, that ended up controlling Congress.)

In the end, though, the very absence of the early election projections proved how unimportant they are. Calling an election first is what, on a family website, we must refer to as a making-wee-wee contest: a macho race for bragging rights important to almost no one outside the media business. When's the last time you or anyone you know chose a network on the basis of whether it called Virginia 30 seconds earlier two years ago?

As for the missing "voter attitudes" information — which newspapers rely on to shape their next-day election analysis — a quick look at today's headlines shows that this election was easy enough to analyze without knowing how high turnout was among left-handed lesbian pheasant hunters. More voters seemed to support a popular wartime president and his priorities. To use the political-science term: Duh.

We learned two things from the 2002 elections. First, that even in an era of homogenized American culture, you can still count on Southerners to come up with cool names like "Saxby Chambliss." And second, that, for all the millions of dollars spent on them, instant results from exit polls mean almost nothing to almost anyone. So most of us ended up finding out that the Republicans took back the Senate after we woke up, not before we went to bed. So what? What were you going to do with those precious hours of knowledge? Buy stocks? Change your citizenship?

Of course, plenty of viewers were probably annoyed by the wait, because we love instant gratification almost as much as we love to hate the media for providing us instant gratification. But who knows? A couple more elections like this — with the result not treated like a foreordained conclusion by clued-in news anchors — and some of us might even develop the crazy idea that our votes matter. As it was, those of us who stayed up into the baggy-eyed wee hours got little out of it except the bad night's sleep we deserved. The happy others who watched "Buffy," went to sleep and caught up on the news in the morning ended up just as well informed. And they were probably much more pleasant to eat breakfast with.