On Tuesday, Nov. 4, voters will go to the polls, and the long, strange presidential campaign of 2008 will mercifully reach its denouement. This is the day we've been hurtling toward for nearly two years. But after dozens of debates; myriad voter polls (behavioral, snap, state-by-state, and the old-fashioned telephone variety, seemingly updated by the minute); dissection of every precinct, issue, machination and wonky lecture; and our own collective voyeuristic fascination with the divisive process, will Election Day seem, somehow, anticlimactic?
“No!” says Sam Feist, CNN's political director. “Regardless of who wins, we've got a great story.”
Each ticket is poised to make history: We will either elect our first African-American president in Barack Obama, or our first female vice president in Sarah Palin. If elected, Republican Sen. John McCain would be our oldest inaugurated president.
“The country is desperate for change,” Feist adds, echoing both candidates' stump slogans. “And they're going to get it. There's a terrific story to tell, a much better story than usual the day after a general election.”
That's why Election Day itself will be no slouch in the story department. With necessary change in the air, news programs, Websites and even entertainment networks will bring out their best pundits and polls, as well as gadgets and gurus to cover the results and bring in viewers. For what has been the most anticipated political showdown in a generation, networks—having already invested considerable time and resources in covering the bitter fight—are prepared for D-Day, as in “Decision.”
Post-election analysis will, of course, be a rich vein for news divisions. But with the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama, sitting on top of a national lead in virtually every poll since the financial crisis rocked Wall Street, pundits, including many conservatives, are measuring the headwinds facing McCain and Palin. And that will come into play in Election Night coverage.
“We should be careful to not assume anything because of myriad polls that are telling us things,” says Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News. “This election has been full of twists and turns. So I'm being really careful—while I'm obviously cognizant of potential scenarios—not to get too sucked into that scenario. Because I think it does color the way you approach Election Day. And we should let the voters decide and not the pundits and the commentators—or the anchors.”
Most experts do not expect this election to echo the Electoral College pattern of the past two terms, when single states—Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004—determined the outcome. Many of the battleground states that McCain hopes to hold onto (such as Virginia, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina) or turn (Pennsylvania) are in the Eastern time zones, where polls will close during prime viewing hours between 7-9 p.m. If any of those states go to Obama, it could be an early night—perhaps not for those working the anchor desk, but for viewers. (Although given the long process leading up to the election, fascinated viewers could stay tuned in regardless.)
Also, a media that was collectively burned by blunders (calling Florida for Al Gore in 2000, and then recalling it and calling it again for George W. Bush) and bad exit polling (giving John Kerry the advantage in 2004) is carefully hedging its bets.
“We don't want to make any straight-line projections,” says David Rhodes, VP of news at Fox News. “On [Election Night] it would be a mistake to look at the exit poll results and come to some conclusion as to how it's going to go. We're definitely informing how we look at that data with the data we have from polls that are out there now. You used to go into Election Night with only a vague idea of how these candidates were polling in different places. Now every day there's just an avalanche of this stuff.”
That avalanche of information has included frequent toss-up-state tracking polls and a flurry of Websites that aggregate state-by-state polls on the Electoral College map, from 538.com to RealClearPolitics.com to Karl Rove's Rove.com. Last week, the Republican operative and Fox News analyst had Obama leading McCain 306 to 157.
“There's just an immense amount of polling out there,” concedes David Chalian, political director at ABC News. “I get that it is poll-driven. But we need not be poll-obsessed.”