Networks may call election before some polls close

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, you can be sure of one thing: The networks aren’t going to hold back calling the election for Barack Obama or John McCain if either gathers the magic number of 270 electoral votes.

That means it’s possible, if not altogether likely, that the presidential election could be called before polls close in the West. That happened once before, in 1980, when the election was famously called -- and conceded -- by 9 p.m. ET. But it’ll be the Internet, cable and the speed of news that will be the driving factor this time.

The networks all promise to take the time to project the race accurately, and say they won’t make any predictions before their time. But executives say it would be foolish for them to sit on a projection if they’re sure, and it wouldn’t be fair to viewers.

“There’s no way to get around it,” CBS News senior vp Paul Friedman said. “If one man gets 270 electoral votes before the West Coast polls are closed, we’re not going to pretend (he doesn’t).”

Phil Alongi, who runs special events programing at NBC News, agrees.

“If you project a state and (the candidate) reaches the electoral vote, what are you going to do? Lie?” Alongi said. “We will project a state when we’re comfortable with the projection. If one of them hits the required 270, you have to report that, and you can’t hold back.”

The networks all have agreed not to call an individual state before the voting stops there. But an overall projection could come before folks in California, Nevada and Washington finish voting. Executives know it’s a fine line that they’ll be walking, and it goes beyond a strict up-and-down counting to 270.

“Suppose that one guy has 260 (electoral votes) and we have exit polls and other information indicating that he’s going to pick up the votes he needs,” Friedman said. “It becomes the delicate matter of telling the audience of what we think is going to happen without discouraging them to vote.”

CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman, who grew up on the West Coast, is acutely aware of the issue. But he said CNN can’t hold back. That doesn’t mean, however, that the networks won’t take pains to say that, even with an early victory, it’s important to vote. Friedman said there are plenty of House and Senate races and local issues that need to be decided regardless.

“We’re acutely aware of not wanting to be in the position of discouraging people from voting,” Friedman said. “But we’re not someone’s nanny. There are reasons to vote on the West Coast (even with the presidential race decided).”

All that being said, no one knows how long the election coverage will go on before a decision is reached. Few think that it will be the blowout that some expect; nor will the magic number be reached without electoral-vote rich California except under the most extraordinary circumstances.

“I don’t see anyone going over the top even before 11 p.m. (ET),” said one executive. Added another, “It’s mathematically possible but extremely unlikely.”

It’s likely that if either McCain or Obama wins relatively early, tens of millions of TV sets will be shutting off pretty soon after. But the networks have prepared to move relatively quickly to the next story, which is control of Congress.

“People lose sight of the fact that there’s a major story that clearly will not be decided early, and that will be (which party) controls Congress,” Friedman said. “If Obama becomes the winner, the major story then becomes does he have a Congress that is controlled by Democrats?”

“There’s going to be a fascinating story to tell on Election Night, no matter how it comes out, because it’s a story the entire country has been engaged in for the long haul,” ABC News political director David Chalian said.

Chastened by their experience in the 2000 election, every network was exceedingly careful in 2004. The networks each overhauled their decision desks, and only Fox News called -- correctly -- the election for President Bush in the wee hours of the next morning. The rest of the networks said they believed Bush would win but they weren’t sure until New Mexico’s situation became clearer.

And even though it’s eight years since the drawn-out battle of 2000, the networks are painfully aware of what could happen.

“The last thing we want to do is have a repeat of 2000, where we have to take back the projections,” CNN’s Bohrman said. “It’s more important to be right than first.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter