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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 November, 2004, 04:35 GMT
US media cautious in election calls
Vote clerks tabulate results
The networks all got their vote results from the Associated Press
Time after time, nervous television presenters in the US hedged on whether to call states for President George W Bush or John Kerry, invoking lessons from the mistakes of the 2000 election.

They waited long after information had been leaked onto the internet, and the common theme seemed to be that of CBS presenter Dan Rather who said: "I would rather be last than wrong."

But the networks split, with Fox and NBC calling the key swing state of Ohio for Mr Bush in the middle of the night, long before ABC, CBS and CNN felt comfortable calling the race.

And the new system was not without its flaws, with exit poll data that an NBC executive called "junk".

Flawed exit polls

The networks and the Associated Press made several reforms after mistakes in the tightly contested presidential election of 2000.

Voter News Service, a combined election projection service run by the media, was abolished and replaced by the new National Election Poll.

But the NEP produced one of the controversial aspects of the reporting, exit polls that incorrectly predicted several big wins for Mr Kerry, including wins in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The networks were careful not to discuss the exit polls, although they were posted on Slate, an online political magazine on Microsoft's MSN site.

However, the polls informed the networks' coverage.

Early in the evening, ABC's George Stephanopoulos said: "Democrats are feeling good, feeling confident; the Republicans, a little apprehensive."

Campaigns combat expectations

The Bush campaign crunched its own numbers and contested the results in calls, in on air appearances and e-mails to the networks.

CBS anchor Dan Rather
I would rather be last than wrong
Dan Rather, CBS

When the networks hesitated calling South Carolina, Mr Bush's chief campaign strategist said that although the exit polls in South Carolina showed the president behind by six, the campaign's projections showed him winning the state by 10.

Mr Bush's actual margin of victory in the state was 18 points.

The Bush campaign moved aggressively to counter the impression given by the exit polls, so that it would not discourage Republican supporters in western states.

Some explained the skewed results by pointing to overrepresentation of women in the national poll. Mr Kerry held a slight advantage with woman.

Playing it safe

But as the real results came it, a different picture soon emerged.

After early victories by Mr Kerry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Mr Bush began adding state after state to his column.

The networks had no difficulty in calling states where either Mr Bush or Mr Kerry won an overwhelming majority, but a swathe of swing states from Pennsylvania through the upper Midwest states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were not called for hours.

The networks went to great pains to explain the rationale behind their calls, going into great detail about precinct-by-precinct tallies and the statistics they employed in projecting winners.

And anchors and analysts never missed an opportunity to tell viewers how cautious they were being.

Satirical news programme The Daily Show lampooned the overly cautious networks.

When asked his prediction, the show's faux political analyst Stephen Colbert said: "I'm waiting for every vote to be counted, recounted, notarised and personally embossed."

And the networks took different approaches to calling the states, leading the different networks to call the states at very different times.

Fox waited an hour after most networks to call California but was the earliest network to call Ohio, putting it in the president's column at 0541 GMT.

ABC and CBS refused to declare a winner, and CNN's Wolf Blitzer declared the state not a red state for Mr Bush or a blue state for Mr Kerry, but rather a "green state", too close to call.

The campaigns put their best spin on the results, and behind the scenes, ABC's Terry Moran said that the Bush campaign was pushing the network to declare Ohio for the president.

In lieu of a concession early on Wednesday morning by Mr Kerry, the Bush campaign wanted all the networks to declare the president the winner in Ohio before he spoke to his supporters.

In the end, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card made a bullish statement on the president's prospects of victory in Ohio.

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