tv reporter

Patient, accurate nets were Super Tuesday's big winner

In deciding one of Super Tuesday's most contested elections last week, the networks applied Missouri's "Show Me" motto to decide who would win the Democratic race in that state.

Even after the Associated Press, a usually reliable source, called the state for Hillary Clinton, none of the networks did. They waited for hard data from St. Louis, which hadn't come in yet, and didn't make the same mistake as AP.

Barack Obama pushed ahead and eventually won the state.

None of the networks made a mistake in calling any of the 24 states that held a primary or caucus Tuesday, nearly 50 separate races that kept the network's so-called decision desks quite busy. And it's a good thing, too, because everyone remembers the famous misfire in 2000, when networks gave the election in Florida to Al Gore, only to have to retract it hours later when it wasn't clear.

The networks' policies, and the decision desks of mostly nonjournalists who make the calls state by state, underwent an overhaul between the 2000 and 2004 elections. But even then, when the networks were extremely careful, there still was an election-related mishap. The early exit polls seemed to favor John Kerry.

But careful was the name of the game on Super Tuesday, as it has been throughout the election season. Such networks as Fox News Channel and NBC/MSNBC were cautious but often came up with the right call faster than their competitors. CNN, on the other hand, gained a reputation of being slower, though CNN execs said it's not about speed but accuracy.

ABC's decision desk chief Dan Merkle says that in a close race, the key is to wait until there's enough data that will confirm the trends you see. Missouri was one of those cases, where no one would go out on a limb until the St. Louis results were clearer.

"Each decision desk is looking at the data in their own way, using their own judgment, and different people can look at the same data and come to different conclusions," Merkle says.

It was the same thing at CBS.

"Sometimes we took longer than others (to make projections), sometimes we didn't," CBS director of surveys Kathy Frankovic says. She adds that on Super Tuesday, there were 43 events to project. That might not be anywhere near what it would be in a general election — which is 50 presidential races plus a national delegate count and national popular vote, and 435 House races and a number of Senate and state races — but it's still a lot. And on Tuesday night it sometimes was even harder to project because there were voting issues, close races and, in the case of Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas, awful weather that voters and exit poll workers had to contend with.

"It was not a great environment to do any sort of work," Frankovic says of those tornado-strewn states. "We were going to be cautious."

Merkle says that for the most part, Super Tuesday didn't hold many surprises.

"It was just go with your plan, go with your expertise, and just look at the data and let the data talk and not worry about what other news organizations are projecting, even if it means waiting a long time," Merkle says.