HOW AP CALLS ELECTION WINNERS
Talk to AP managers with successful track records in calling election winners quickly and accurately and you hear three things over and over—preparation, organization and consultation.
A handful of current and former bureau chiefs give an inside look at the process from the perspective of an AP race caller. They tell how they prepare for election night and how they work through their list of races amid the tension and drama of one of the biggest news nights of the year. Here’s an abbreviated compendium of “Best Practices” for bureau chiefs at AP.
“Know your state,” Kevin Walsh advises. Walsh was Florida chief of bureau in 2000 when AP was the only news organization that did not prematurely declare George W. Bush president. “You can’t make effective election night decisions if you don’t understand voting patterns and changing demographics in your state," Walsh says. "Take time in advance of the general election to understand the latest trends in Census data and state and county demographic research. Talk with a state or university demographic research expert. Assign a story on the subject as part of your pre-election coverage package. Demographic changes can have profound implications on traditional voting patterns on the county level, particularly with states with high immigration and increasing diversity.” It’s also important to know the candidates’ hometowns, because it could confound your normal perception of that area.
All this election research and more is provided to race callers by the AP election research and quality control group in New York. For instance, detailed county-by-county spreadsheet reports are provided with past election results, demographics, geographical regions, and current registration information on every upcoming election.
Julie Aicher March made a habit of touching base before every election with her state’s most high-profile political pollster to “go over historical data and discuss any changes around the state that might impact top races. We’d then focus on the top 10 counties and what was expected to happen in each. You need to be aware of demographic and social changes on the local, state and federal level that may sway voters from past practices.”
Dale Leach, now chief of bureau in Texas, spends time trying to figure out what’s unique about the upcoming election. “Are there multiple candidates for governor? A controversial ballot issue? Then figure out how that might impact other races in the state. Will it increase turnout among a certain segment of voters? Split an important bloc of voters? Once you’ve figured that out, decide what you’re going to do about it. Are there counties that might bear closer than normal watching?”
An increasingly important focus of pre-election preparation is absentee and early voters. In the 2008 presidential election, absentee and early votes accounted for more than 20 percent of the total vote in 32 states, and over 33 percent nationally. No AP manager can safely call any non-blowout race without a careful assessment of those non-Election Day voters.
As Seattle chief of bureau, Leach had staffers call county election officials daily in the week before Election Day to find out how many absentee ballots had been requested and how many returned. His detailed county-by-county spreadsheets on absentees kept AP from calling a 2000 Senate race that the networks all called prematurely and had to rescind. These days, AP election research and election coordinator teams often provide that kind of supplemental survey information.
Race callers also need procedures to track provisional votes, an election night wrinkle that grew out of the post-2000 election reforms. AP held back from calling Ohio—and with it the presidency—in 2004 because of the uncertainty over how many provisional ballots had been cast and how they might break. This year, there will be provisional voting history from 2004, 2006 and 2008 to guide race callers in close elections.
Information AvailableHere's the information AP bureau chiefs have at their disposal:
- Complete spreadsheets of county-by-county results for all recent statewide and House elections, including a breakout of absentee, early and provisional votes.
- Access to a comprehensive election research database with current information on rules and procedures, and also with archives of official election statistics.
- A wealth of information about state and county election practices, including when and where absentees are counted and added to the count, the names and phones numbers of county election officials, the type of voting equipment used in each county, and provisional voting rules.
- Spreadsheets showing statewide and county-by-county differences between the final AP vote count in the past three general elections and the official, certified count.
- Detailed information on when AP’s county election stringers in each state reported in the past three general elections, and a breakdown of those county reports by different time periods.
Making the Call — the Tough Part
At AP, we strive for both speed and accuracy in making election calls. Making accurate calls as quickly as possible is even more important in the Internet age. That’s why preparation, organization and consultation are so important. “Being right every time is always the top priority,” said Charles Hill, a former bureau chief. “The key is not to rely on that standard as a crutch that prevents you from making a timely call.”
Bottom line, Hill said: “Making the final call is a matter of math, history and gut.”
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