Brit Hume courtesy Fox News
For viewers, Super Tuesday was a dizzying night of spinning graphics, graphs and maps. But it would mean nothing without the number crunchers who sift through the exit polls and the vote count. TV Guide took a seat at the Fox News "decision desk" as the results rolled in to get a feel for how the electoral sausage gets made.
The Fox decision-desk team includes academics, a pollster, a veteran election-results analyst, and Fox News senior vice president John Moody, who'll make the final determination on when anchor
will call a race. The polls are still open, but the team is already poring over exit-poll numbers from the research firm that delivers the numbers to all of the networks. But instead of being holed up in a back room, they are smack in the middle of the news channel's Super Tuesday set - a mix of lucite, steel and plasma TV screens that could serve as the set for a futuristic musical stage production. The team, who look they like belong in a university mathematics department, seem a bit out of place in the high-gloss production. But that's the point, says Fox News vice president David Rhodes. "We thought the best way to deal with this issue is maximum transparency - to put as much of this process as possible on camera to demystify it. Let the viewers see a journalistic and academic process."
In a room just outside the set, a buffet dinner is being served - and Fox political analyst Michael Barone is in line with plate in hand. Since the studio is on the West Side of Manhattan, he knows he's got a shot at getting some decent Italian food. The author of
The Almanac of American Politics
, Barone has been to every U.S. county with more than 300,000 residents, as well as all 435 congressional districts; he's a walking encyclopedia of census and demographic data and voting patterns. Barone will spend the night interpreting the decision-desk data for viewers, throwing in some insights of his own. As a teenager, he remembers coloring a map of more than 3,100 U.S. counties according to the 1960 vote count for President Kennedy. "I still know those numbers pretty well," he says. "I've been doing that for the intervening 45 years." While he sits down for his meal, former Bush White House advisor Karl Rove stops by to say hello. As they chat, it's apparent that Barone already has a clear idea of what's going to happen tonight.
The first polls have closed, and Fox can call Georgia for Sen. Barack Obama, even though none of the raw vote has been counted. "There are some races where we can make reasonably true projections," says Moody. On his computer screen he has exit-poll data showing Obama with 60 to 70 percent of the Democratic primary vote. "It is nearly statistically impossible for Hillary Clinton to catch up with Obama," he says. But exit polling in other states isn't as clear. Rhodes is scrutinizing the numbers in New Jersey, where polls will close at 8 pm. "Clinton should have been very strong," he said. "Instead it's a race." The real headache the desk is anticipating is the delegate-rich state of California. The exit polling showed Sen. John McCain with a slight lead on the Republican side and a significant lead for Clinton - but that won't be enough to call the race when the polls close at 11 pm. "Forty percent of the electorate in California votes early or absentee," says Moody. "Because the state is deliberate in counting that early vote, we may not have an answer tonight. It almost harkens back to the '50s and '60s - the happy days when everybody went to bed and woke up and found out who won."
As the polls close and the races are called, it's Rhodes' job to send e-mails to the anchors and correspondents with the results. The whole time he is being spun by the campaigns. The Clinton camp says snow and ice in New Mexico have held down a turnout of the Latino vote. Then another missive arrives telling how Clinton scored a decisive win in Massachusetts despite Sen. Ted Kennedy's endorsement for Obama. Obama operatives are at it, too, with an e-mail suggesting that Clinton should have done better in her home state of New York.
Moody gets a slip of paper from his decision desk with Clinton's name circled. His analysts believe she's won New Jersey, even though exit polls suggested Obama was closing in. While there are more votes to be counted, Fox goes with what Moody says is "an aggressive call." But those are few and far between nowadays, after all of the networks botched the Florida vote in the 2000 presidential race: Under no circumstances does any news division want to live through that again. "Wanting to be first won't influence the call," says Moody. "We don't like to be beaten on it, but we have to be right. It's only eight years since 2000. While we're more humble, we're more confident."
The results for 20 states are already in, but the desk is still struggling with the race in Missouri. The Associated Press has called it for Clinton, but the desk believes there are too many uncounted votes in St. Louis to write off Obama. Still, the real anticipation is over California. Mitt Romney appears to be catching up to McCain in the exit polls, but there's no on-air discussion about that before the polls close. "This is when Brit earns his money," says Moody. "He has to vamp for a while."
As data comes in from California, analyst Arnon Mishkin spots a trend he's noticed throughout the night: Actual votes show Clinton running stronger than exit polls indicated. "Obama's people seem much more willing to answer exit-polling questions than the Clinton people," Mishkin explains. He surprises Moody by saying they should call the state for Clinton.
After some deliberation, the desk decides to give California to Clinton and McCain. MSNBC calls the race for Clinton just moments before Fox gets on the air with the news - and then follows Fox on the McCain win. On Super Tuesday, it's a game of seconds.