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Why Are Voters The Last To Know?

I am writing this post at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The polls in Massachusetts have been open less than five hours, and there are more than eight hours to go before they close.

Yet I believe political insiders already know that state Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican, has upset Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley for the U.S. Senate seat that Ted Kennedy held for 47 years. I think the odds are better than 80 percent that Brown has won.

Of course, this may turn out to be my “Dewey Defeats Truman” post, echoing the famously wrong Chicago Tribune headline about the 1948 presidential election. I’ll take that chance.

News media have become gun-shy over the years about reporting election trends while voters are still voting. Sometimes, that is simply because races are too close to call — even long after the voting is over. Think Bush versus Gore in the 2000 presidential race, or Coleman versus Franken in the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota.

But a lot of the time, the outcome is clear to those in the know. Large news organizations have exit polls to guide them. Moreover, in a race like this one, turnout trends are the key. Are voters in heavily Democratic precincts turning out in the same numbers as those in areas populated by Republicans (scarce in Massachusetts) or independents (who outnumber Democrats there)? With independents leaning heavily toward Brown in pre-election surveys, their turnout controls the result.

The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The New York Times all have some idea of this as I write. But they are not saying what they know, for reasons we will get to in a moment.

Political insiders have their own private surveys, and they, too, know whether this race is going to be a photo-finish or not. They are not saying, either. Their motivations are purely self-interest, of course. Republicans do not want to proclaim victory too early because that could make Brown supporters complacent. If they decide to stay home on a blustery day, it could hand the race to Coakley. Democrats, already likely to be humiliated by losing one of the safest seats in the Senate, do not want to compound the problem by demoralizing their own supporters and turning a defeat into a rout.

But why are journalists keeping mum? I covered many elections in my journalism career, and I can assure you that, whatever biases journalists may have, their first loyalty is always to the story — to get it first, and usually to get it right.

The Dewey-Truman fiasco and others like it helped put the brakes on reporters’ instinctive drive to be first with the news. Here I am, more than 60 years later, still talking about the Tribune’s mistake. That is a journalist’s nightmare.

The press also took a public relations beating in 1980, when an early call for Ronald Reagan in the presidential race allegedly depressed Democratic voting in Western states where the polls were still open. This may have contributed to Republicans taking over the Senate and, in alliance with conservative Democrats, effectively taking over the House that year. I felt for years afterward that reporters had become too skittish about reporting what they knew for fear of being blamed for the consequences. In journalism, the mission is supposed to be to report the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

So, in the absence of information from the press, what makes me think I know how the Massachusetts vote is turning out?

I’m following the spin. After spending most of last week saying President Obama would stay out of the race, the White House hurriedly dispatched him to New England over the weekend to try to save Coakley’s candidacy and his own political agenda, especially on health care.

While the vote was going on, however, a White House spokesman claimed that it was not a reflection on Democrats’ health reform plans, which clearly had become the central issue in the race. Because Massachusetts already has its own version of universal care, said Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, the race was being decided on other issues.

He was talking about a state that had not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972. What issues, then, might account for the change of heart? Pfeiffer wasn’t saying, because none were in sight.

If Democrats thought they had any realistic chance of winning, they would have held back the spin cycle in order to claim vindication of their health care plan. The fact that they did not tells me that they already knew the outcome, even before most voters had cast their ballots.

So, trust me, Brown won yesterday’s vote. But don’t trust me that much. Check your favorite news outlet this morning. After all, I’m not a political insider, so nobody is telling me anything, either.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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One Response to "Why Are Voters The Last To Know?"

  • Eliza Snelling
    January 20, 2010 - 10:17 am

    One problem with making predictions based on exit polls early in the day is that, in order to do so, you must assume that those who vote early are representative of the entire population. The Massachusetts polls were open yesterday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Since the election was held on a weekday, as nearly all of our elections are, those who voted before 5 or 6 p.m. are probably less likely to be employed in traditional office jobs than those who voted between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. While I cannot prove that there is any correlation between work hours and voting patterns, one should not assume without further evidence that such a correlation does not exist. As you pointed out in a post you wrote in November, if you start with a sample that isn’t representative of the whole population, you can end up with faulty conclusions.

    In this case, however, your early prediction was correct.