The most famous election photo of all time was about an embarrassing mistake — the photo of President Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that blared DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.
That headline serves as a cautionary tale for what we’re about to discuss: How the media goes about “projecting” a winner before all the votes are counted.
First, some history: Polling in 1948 was in its infancy; it’s much more sophisticated (and accurate) now. Still, even the best polling only captures a moment in time. Just because a poll last week said one thing doesn’t matter if people change their minds in the meantime. In 1948, pollsters were so confident that Thomas Dewey would oust Truman that they stopped polling weeks before the election. They simply missed Truman’s late surge.
When the early returns showed Truman ahead, the Chicago editors thought that was an aberration — merely a case of the Truman-friendly localities reporting first. Since they knew Dewey was going to win, that’s what they went with for their first edition. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, here’s what history doesn’t tell us: Nobody knew on Election Night 1948 who had won. Even The Roanoke Times the morning after the election — which had election results updated at 5 a.m. — said only: TRUMAN LEADS DEWEY IN TIGHT BATTLE. The Associated Press article below it cautiously said “the contest was far from over.” Not until 10:14 a.m. the day after the election did Dewey concede. Even then, vote counting was still underway in multiple states but Dewey realized Truman’s lead was insurmountable — an example of how we’ve had other elections where the final results weren’t known on election night. How long will it take before we know the results this year? We looked at some of those variables Monday. Today we’ll look at how the news media goes about “projecting” a winner.
It’s not hard — as long as you know the electoral histories of different localities, and have enough votes to go on. Let’s take a look at how that works.
In Virginia, some of the first localities to report are typically rural counties — fewer voters, so quicker counting. One of the first to report is often Buchanan County. Four years ago, Donald Trump took 78.9% of the vote in Buchanan County. If early returns there show Trump running behind his 2016 percentage, well, that’s obviously not good news for him. He didn’t carry Virginia then so if he’s to win this time he needs to exceed his margins somewhere and you’d think the best places to do that would be the counties where he ran well before. If he’s running less well in those counties, then why should we expect him to run better in places where he ran poorly before?
On the other hand, if the early returns this year show Trump running ahead of that 2016 percentage in Buchanan County, that’s obviously good news for Trump — and suggests he might run ahead of his previously overwhelming margins throughout rural Virginia. But before we “project” anything, we need to know whether there are countervailing trends in the state’s metro areas. After all, Buchanan had just 9,247 voters four years ago, which means even with a landslide percentage, Trump’s margin there was still only 5,575 votes — or about the size of two precincts in mammoth Fairfax County.
One particularly good locality to watch is Chesterfield County. This Richmond suburb once was solidly Republican but lately has been trending Democratic. In 2004, George W. Bush won the county with 62.6% of the vote and carried Virginia. In 2012, Mitt Romney took just 53% of the vote there to Barack Obama’s 45.4% and lost the state overall. In 2016, Trump won Chesterfield 48.2% to 45.9% and also lost the state. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam eked out a 49.7% to 49.1% margin in Chesterfield and won the governor’s race. In 2018, Democrat Tim Kaine ran up his share in Chesterfield to 54%. That gives us a good range of possibilities. If Joe Biden carries Chesterfield by a Kaine-like margin, it’s a safe bet he’s going to win Virginia by a wide margin, just as Kaine did. If he carries Chesterfield by a smaller margin, he’ll still likely carry Virginia, just as other Democrats did. If the returns show Trump winning Chesterfield by a small margin, well, he might still lose Virginia overall but it may be a lot closer than we expect. However, if Trump wins Chesterfield by a large margin, that might suggest he’s on his way to carrying Virginia (and, given recent history, the presidency).
The astronomer Carl Sagan, when speaking of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, laid down this standard: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The same principle applies here. If early returns — from a variety of rural, urban and suburban localities — are tracking similarly to recent years, then it’s almost certain the overall results will be the same. Most localities tend to move in the same direction as others just like them. We might see suburbs and rural areas move in different directions, but we don’t usually see some suburbs swing left while others swing right, for instance. That makes it easy to project results if they match previous years. However, if we see localities departing from historical trends, then we need to be more cautious and await more evidence.
Montgomery County, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach are three other good localities to watch because all have been quite close in the past three presidential elections. Any significant variation in either direction might tell us something early, particularly suburban Chesapeake and Virginia Beach because the suburbs are where both parties hope to make gains.
The difficulty in projecting winners comes with races that are, literally, too close to call. Then we start looking at which precincts are still out — and what their voting histories are. That will be especially critical this time with Virginia counting mail ballots that arrive by noon Friday as long as they’re postmarked by today. A thin lead for one party isn’t secure if the late-reporting precincts usually vote for the other party. In 2006, Republican George Allen led Virginia’s U.S. Senate race all night — but the last precincts to report were in heavily Democratic Arlington County, and Democrat Jim Webb eked out a victory.
The important thing to remember, though, is this: None of these media projections carry any legal force. Just ask President Dewey.
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