Rushing to judgment

Having nailed down exit poll data the same way Bush and Gore nailed down their nominations, the network anchors were free to opine smugly on Super Tuesday.

Published March 8, 2000 6:00PM (EST)

As promised, Slate did not run the results of exit polls on Tuesday. Deputy editor Jack Shafer had already announced that the Voter News Service had threatened to take legal action and, well, his hands were tied.

It's no secret that the information culled from these polls (the property of a consortium of TV networks and news organizations) is the special ingredient in TV election coverage. It's what makes all those newscasters look so smug before they predict a winner in a given race -- and what allows them to predict the winner with such confidence. It's what makes the Hottentots so hot.

And Slate (which had published the results of the polls "decision records," i.e., whom those polled voted for, during the Michigan race) had copped the magic beans and there was a shit-storm of opinion in the press about it, pro and con.

The Washington Post was of two minds: The paper's director of polling condemned the move as a blow against responsible journalism. "Common sense and pleas for restraint are no match for the anarchy of the Net in league with the arrogance of the media," he wrote of Slate's decision to run the exit polls before the voting polls had closed. A Post editorial cheered Slate on, saying there was no evidence that exit poll information affected the vote.

Into the fray stepped National Review editor Rich Lowry, who threatened to share the exit poll data that Slate was scared off from running. The move brought a lot of visitors to the conservative magazine's Web site, all of whom left disappointed.

"Because National Review is a nonprofit organization -- literally -- we don't have the resources to face down the fine gentlemen at Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, who are bullying us on behalf of the Voter News Service into not delivering you the news," wrote Lowry. "As I write this at 2:50 p.m., I know who is very narrowly ahead in New York and is having a banner day overall. I know who is going to get a huge bounce from today and sweep through the Southern round of primaries next week. I know this because sources have told me. This is news. But I can't report it."

Would it have made any difference if he had? The vast majority still get their election information from TV; the worst publishing exit poll data might do is force the networks to violate the gentlemen's agreement they've had not to spill those beans. (Everyone likes to recall the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter conceded defeat before the West Coast polls were closed, based on what he had heard on television.)

But as is, the anchors and reporters on the cable news channels gave the exit-polling fracas hardly a mention. They had won that particular battle and, like Al Gore and George Bush looking in their rear-view mirrors at the roadkill that had been Bill Bradley and John McCain, they were on to other things.

At 6:12 p.m. EST, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell tried to get California Rep. Chris Cox to admit that money is distorting the election process. Tough sell to a Bush man. "Democracy is a contact sport," he said.

Nearly an hour before the first polls had closed, the Monday-morning quarterbacking had already begun -- even as a few McCain and Bradley supporters argued that it wasn't over yet. Sen Paul Wellstone, a Bradley supporter, said he didn't want to speak in the past tense but would like to wait until the votes were counted.

Hold that thought while we rush to judgment ...

In one of the most dramatic flourishes of the evening, Sen. John Kerry touted Gore as the king of campaign finance reform, a truly remarkable turnaround that, if successful, would make Bush's transformation into "A Reformer With Results" a mere parlor trick.

Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell both made a lot of appearances over the evening, almost as many as the candidates themselves. On Fox, Brit Hume asked Falwell if Jesus Christ were here today, would he care about the Democratic Party or the GOP? Falwell said he doubted it, but that issues like the right to life and gay marriage were spiritual issues that have become political.

Meanwhile, MSNBC's raucous "Equal Time" paired Paul Begala with New York Rep. Rick Lazio, as co-host Ollie North tussled with Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel for a quick session of name-calling and finger-pointing. I think they call it "Equal Time" because everyone has equal time to shout at one another.

Another New York representative, Peter King (who went from Bush to the McCain camp after the Bob Jones show), vainly tried to remind those present that it's not over yet. Fights over whether Bush or Gore -- forget McCain! -- had the best breast-cancer voting record were breaking out, a new form of breast beating. Rangel, with his Groucho Marx eyebrows and Columbo rasp, kept trying to bring it back to Bob Jones and Bush's subsequent apologies to Catholics: "Once he gets caught, he runs over to the ailing cardinal to say he's sorry to him."

Just before 7 p.m., CNN took a trip down memory lane, showing footage of the campaign thus far. Look, there's that angry Alan Keyes. Remember when he moshed to Rage Against the Machine?

All networks agreed that McCain had won Vermont. On MSNBC, at 7:06, Howard Fineman makes the first ice cream joke: "John McCain got both Ben and Jerry to vote for him." Given that everyone had picked the senator to win Vermont, you would have thought someone would have gone further -- a nod to Cherry Garcia, perhaps, or that old standby, Chubby Hubby.

At 8:36, Falwell was on MSNBC, saying Bush should think about McCain as a running mate. At 8:40, the Bushes (George and Laura) were holding hands on Fox. "I'm confident we can come together," the governor said of McCain. Asked if he was hurt by the phone calls McCain's camp made to Catholics in Michigan, Bush tried a bit of scripture. "Far be it from me to take a speck out of my neighbor's eye when I may have a log in my own."

Almost as ubiquitous as Robertson and Falwell was talk of the Dow, which had taken a big plunge that day. Bush sees that tax cut idea looking better in an unstable economy, while Gore's team has already begun to characterize those cuts as "reckless."

Candidate couples were big: NBC's Brian Williams watched the Gores watching results and pointed out, "The remote is in the hand of the male." (You don't need Naomi Wolf for that kind of dominance.)

Bradley's concession speech sounded, not surprisingly, like his opening farewell. There was not a dry eye in the house as he paid tribute to his wife ("One of the best things about this campaign is the country got to know Ernestine") and the idealism of his followers.

But his speech -- probably his last in prime time -- was carried live only on CNN. The other networks had moved on.

Shortly after 10, former Sen. Alan Simpson was back with Brian Williams. Simpson's appearances have supplied some of the campaign coverage's best comic relief and most alarming metaphors. Last night he was comparing Gore to Superman -- neck muscles bulging, suit buttons bursting, a big S on his chest -- "but the kryptonite was made out of lead."

Kryptonite -- like exit polls -- is really no more deadly than the person handling it. Bradley, finally, couldn't persuade his own dog to vote for him, while Gore seemed to grow like a balloon in the Macy's parade. What had he been so afraid of? It seemed impossible to recall.

By 11:23, John McCain was making a speech of his own (all the networks carried this one), talking to the loyal followers about the crusade, without giving up the cause. "America stands for something so much greater than the cynicism that sometimes afflicts us," he said.

Sorry? I wasn't paying attention.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Al Gore Campaign Finance Cnn Democratic Party George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Msnbc Republican Party