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Problems Associated With Early Election Projections in the Media

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US Election 2016
Credit: Maialisa via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain https://pixabay.com/en/presidential-2016-american-flag-1311753/

As election season is in full gear in the United States, the media is constantly covering the candidates, especially being this year is a presidential election. Along with this comes plenty of polls and discussion about who is going to win. Before we know it, Election Day will be here along with early projections as the votes come in.

Many people consider the practice of early projections to be questionable at best. There are many problems associated with it, both ethically and logistically.

For instance, if those voters located in the west coast of the Continental United States, Alaska or Hawaii hear prior to their voting that their favored candidate has no chance of winning, couldn't this affect the incentive to vote the way they want to? Many may even stay home thinking their candidate is going to lose anyway, which could ultimately affect who wins an election race, particularly in close races.

A Look at the 2010 Mid-Term Election

In the 2010 election in the United States was a highly anticipated mid-term election as a high percentage of American citizens are unhappy with Congress. Polls had long shown a low approval rating of the legislative branch of U.S. government, but a July 2010 showed it dropping even more. [1] 

US Capitol building
Credit: Leigh Goessl

People were sick of the way government was being run and with elections coming up, they had the chance to speak through their votes. By the end of Election 2010, the voters heavily leaned Republican, with 60 House of Representative seats being gained. However, before votes were tallied, or in many instances, even cast, early projections in the media predicted this change of tide in the government would occur. Early in the evening of Nov. 2, 2010 many major networks projected a Republican takeover of the House.

Democrats were reportedly not happy with this early reporting by the media. The Los Angeles Times reported: 

"Some Democrats protested Tuesday night as the television networks and cable TV outlets said Republicans would take control of the House of Representatives - projections made well before polls close in California and the West." [2]

Despite the fact no notable results were even computed and, in many instances, polls on the West coast were still open with active voting, a Republican takeover was reported. One might ask how it is possible to make such a sure projection so early in the tallying – and this is a valid question.

Speculating, Theorizing and More Speculating

In any given election, regardless of the political environment or leanings, the media and talking heads always speculate who will win (in some cases ad nauseum). This often starts long before Election Day. This, of course, raises the question of whether or not this can theoretically affect an election in itself.

If one were to look at the percentage of each district in as the early projections are occurring, it can easily be seen most networks will indeed project a winner even if most of the votes have not even been calculated. In 2016 on the evening of most of the primary elections, in some cases, some networks were calling a candidate as the winner based on one percent of the voting tallied.

While there have been several upsets since 2000 alone (who can forget the media circus that ensued after the George W. Bush/Al Gore very close race?), the practice of early projections is nothing new. Consider how the 2008 presidential election the media had President Obama elected before polls on different time zones were even closed.

Same Old Song, New Election Year

Fast-forward to 2016 and in the presidential primaries, anybody that wasn’t named Clinton or Trump pretty much never had a shot. Some may argue that Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz might have had a chance, but truly, did they really? Lesser known major candidates were not given media coverage and/or were ignored in the debates (Many might ask Martin O’Malley who? Not surprising, being he was barely noticed at the Democrat primary debates). And who can forget Ben Carson chiming in at a Republican primary debate in February 2016 after his presence was widely ignored, "Can somebody attack me please?" [4] At one point during a later debate, Republican candidate John Kasich echoed similar sentiments, but by the time he received any real attention by the media, mainly because he was the last guy standing next to Trump, it was far too late for him to really gain many potential votes in the upcoming primary. 

US Elections - Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Credit: Accessed via Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_and_Hillary_Clinton_during_United_States_presidential_election_2016.jpg

In the many months before an election, poll after poll by different organizations are taken. These are often used as a jumping point by news organizations to promote discussion and/or make projections. On the evening of Election Day, exit polls are widely reported. But the reliability of these polls is often called into question. Some people don’t want to answer and others may not be truthful and/or willing to go public with how they voted. Not to mention, in a related vein, but digressing a bit, opinion polls have an impact too. According to a U.S. News and World Report piece in September 2015, opinion polls have become increasingly inaccurate for a number of reasons.  [5]

Polls aside, the bottom line is early projections in the media on or before election days are not uncommon. This practice has been going on as long as the media has been trying to out scoop one another. While it's mostly, same old, same old, one thing that has majorly changed (and can't be ignored) is the fact technology has given the ability to communicate and share information a lot faster than in previous decades. And its hand reaches bigger audiences, especially now that social media is heavily in the mix. Can these factors impact election results?

Essentially, neither party complains about early election reporting until they are on the losing end of the early projections. Otherwise it is simply par for the course. Perhaps therein lies the real problem? What do you think?

Are early election projections ethical? Should the media even try to project who will win an election before the votes are tallied? Or should they wait until all polls across the country close and solid numbers are in?

 

[ Related Reading: What Do U.S. Political Candidates Do With Unused Campaign Funds? ]

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Bibliography

  1. "Congress Ranks Last in Confidence in Institutions." Gallup. 22/07/2010. 15/09/2016 <Web >
  2. "Democrats upset at media for early projection of GOP House takeover." Los Angeles Times. 2/11/2010. 15/09/2016 <Web >
  3. "On historic night, Republicans sweep House Democrats from power." The Christian Science Monitor. 3/11/2010. 15/09/2016 <Web >
  4. "Ben Carson: 'Can somebody attack me please?'." USA Today. 26/02/2016. 15/09/2016 <Web >
  5. "The Problem With Polls ." US News. 28/09/2015. 15/09/2016 <Web >

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