The groupThe National Election Pool consists of
ABC, The Associated Press, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC.
By Matea Gold Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK — Haunted by the bungled calls and leaked information that plagued the coverage of the past three nationwide elections, a group of news organizations is taking no chances Tuesday.
This time around, the members of the National Election Pool — a consortium of five broadcast and cable networks and The Associated Press that commissions exit polls of the major races — have decided to sequester two analysts from each news organization in a secret "quarantine room" in New York, where they alone will get access to the first waves of data from precincts around the country.
Stripped of their cellphones and BlackBerrys — and even monitored when they use the bathrooms — the representatives will be able to study the results of the surveys but will not be allowed to communicate them to their newsrooms until 5 p.m. EST, although results won't be broadcast until later. Projections will be made for each race in a state, one at a time, after all the polls in a state are closed.
The election-pool representatives must sign legal affidavits guaranteeing they will not reveal any data before 5 p.m.
The measures are necessary, news executives said, to prevent the leaks that occurred in the 2004 presidential race, when early exit-poll results indicating Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was in the lead rocketed through cyberspace.
"People got the wrong impression, and while it didn't impact how we projected the election, we realized that if the data was getting out and being misinterpreted, that's not a good thing," said Dan Merkle, director of ABC News' decision desk.
The decision to delay release of the data "may slow us down a little bit, but it's a fact of life for all the networks," he added.
The first wave of exit-poll data is often misleading, polling experts say, because it is based solely on surveys of morning voters, a sample that is not necessarily representative of the electorate.
"The analogy I use is that of a scoreboard at a baseball game," said Keating Holland, CNN's polling director, one of those who will be in the quarantine room. "What the scoreboard says at the end of the first inning is not an accurate reflection of the final score, or even who is going to win."
The leaking of early data wasn't the only problem in 2004. By the end of Election Day, the exit polls continued to show Kerry ahead of President Bush, a problem news directors attributed, in part, to the fact that Democrats have historically been more willing to answer the surveys than Republicans.
Another possible factor: the large number of college students hired to conduct the exit polls in 2004, some of whom apparently had trouble getting older voters to answer the surveys. This year, the consortium has recruited more professional interviewers and has stepped up their training in an attempt to capture a wider swath of the electorate.
"It's kind of drip, drip, drip," said Paul Friedman, vice president of CBS News. "If we made another bad mistake, it would kind of add to the toll taken on our credibility."
Network executives said their prime directive is to be right above all else.
"There's a tremendous amount of pressure," said Marty Ryan, executive producer of political programs for Fox News. "We love being first in race calls, but our mandate ... is to be correct."
Fox News has commissioned its own exit polls in seven key states as a backup measure, as it has for the past several elections. This year, CBS also is conducting its own exit poll in key precincts, largely in Ohio, to gauge the mood of voters. (These separate polls will also be used to inform demographic coverage but not to project results until after the polls are closed.)
But most of the data Tuesday will be provided by the National Election Pool, the media consortium that replaced the beleaguered Voter News Service, which was disbanded in 2003 after failing to generate accurate data in two consecutive elections.
In forming its successor, the participating media organizations decided to segregate the exit-poll surveys, which are now conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, and the tabulation of the actual vote, which is done by The Associated Press.
Each network also has assembled its own team of statisticians, political scientists and other consultants to analyze the numbers on Election Night, setting up major operations that resemble political war rooms.
Some — like NBC — plan to keep their decision desks isolated from coverage on rival networks so executives won't be influenced by their competitors in projecting a race.