CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist has spent a lot of time talking about the race in Kentucky’s 6th congressional district. A lot.
His team at CNN — including anchors, reporters, producers, chyron writers, alert senders, and pretty much anyone else whose hand touches election-night coverage — has rehearsed 16 different scenarios of what might happen in Tuesday’s midterms. A red wave, a blue wave, a purple ripple — all have been covered in the run-throughs, which play out hypothetical election nights in real time. Some have stretched six, seven, eight and even nine hours long.
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The only thing that’s the same in each one is that the first polls close at 6 p.m. in eastern Kentucky, prompting discussion of that particular swing race. From there, Feist said, “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
“We’re ready for every outcome,” he said.
Over in the Washington Post newsroom, national editor Steven Ginsberg says he’s encouraged reporters and editors covering the midterm races to “embrace not knowing” what will happen on election night. His rivals at the New York Times are taking a similar tack — the approach is “prepare, prepare, prepare,” said politics editor Patrick Healy, but with “eyes wide open for a number of scenarios.”
Two years ago, the media was pilloried for giving viewers and readers the impression there was little chance Hillary Clinton could lose and, worse, for “missing” the Trump phenomenon. Conservatives mocked the reactions of television anchors as his victory became apparent. This year, editors and executives from the Times, Post, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News all told POLITICO that they will be prepared for any outcome — and will make sure their readers and viewers are, too.
Marc Burstein, ABC News senior executive producer of special events, acknowledged “there were assumptions made in 2016 by lots of news organizations,” a trap he intends to avoid this time around. “We’re going to be nimble. We’re going to follow the results,” Burstein said. “We’re not going to assume anything.”
Burstein, now producing his 11th election night, said this is the biggest midterm campaign ABC has ever covered, rivaling a presidential contest. He said the network recognized early on the significance of the 2018 midterm elections, and executives committed to “blow out all of primetime.”
That’s a big shift from 2014, when ABC, NBC and CBS only devoted an hour in primetime to midterm election results. This year, all three broadcast networks are running from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday, along with extensive coverage online.
Anthony Salvanto, the CBS News elections and surveys director, said that any problems in 2016 resulted from too much focus on the horse-race at the expense of the bigger picture. He said he did not think CBS fell prey to that issue, but his network’s goal will be to see the evening as “a range of possibilities.”
Part of the issue two years ago, he said, resulted from focusing too much on national polls showing Clinton to be ahead — a projection that, in the end, was born out but did not matter much. For similar reasons, he said, CBS has been focused on seat-by-seat results, as opposed to generic ballot polls.
Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt said another big mistake in 2016 was that many news organizations dismissed the possibility of Trump winning, even as polls indicated he had a roughly 20 percent chance of victory. “If somebody told you there was a one in five chance that an airplane was going to crash, you would not get on the airplane,” Stirewalt said.
Stirewalt stressed that news organizations shouldn’t leave viewers with the impression that, for example, Democrats will certainly win the House when they point out the probability that will happen. “I’m sort of like the weatherman,” he said. “I’m not in control of the storm. But I can tell you where on the map it’s likely to go.”
After frustrations with 2016 exit polls, Fox News broke with other networks in creating the Fox News Voter Analysis, a new method of analyzing voting behavior that Stirewalt said will allow reporters and anchors to “talk about things with a level of detail and nuance,” including looking at who did not vote Tuesday.
Feist said CNN’s preparations are similar to previous major elections, but he said the network has retooled for a broadcast that he thinks will receive more attention than any midterm before it. “We have completely re-programmed the magic wall from the ground up,” he said, referring to the giant monitor with maps that CNN uses in its election coverage, in order to be more nimble in breaking down specific house races.
Tracking the 500-some races in play Tuesday is a much more complicated affair than a presidential year, when the main focus is clear. Having worked through so many scenarios, Feist said CNN was making no assumptions about how Tuesday night would go: “Our tools don’t have a preference to whether the Democrats or Republicans win the House or the Senate.”
Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC, echoed other executives in warning against predictions. The strategy for Tuesday, she said, is to “guide the viewers through a big night” while “being focused on telling them what’s happening in real time.”
As NBC devotes three hours in primetime to midterms coverage, MSNBC is planning for 42 hours of live programming beginning with “Morning Joe First Look” at 5 a.m. Tuesday. “This go-around looks much more like a presidential election,” said Jones, who noted that NBC and MSNBC currently have 25 correspondents fanned out across the country.
“Where we are now is just so different from four, eight years ago,” the Post’s Ginsberg said regarding the past two midterm elections. The Post has two dozen journalists across the country, Ginsberg said, along with several dozen working from the office on election night.
Ginsberg said the “takeaway from 2016 is that we should be careful about the metrics we use to judge election results.” Journalists will continue to look at polling, money spent in races and other metrics — but as guidance. Ginsberg said he was “happy going into election day not knowing what the result will be.”
Healy said Times reporters would be careful not to let pre-written material — which reporters facing tight deadlines often prepare — lock them into storylines that could turn on a dime. “We don’t want to find ourselves at 11:45 p.m. with the narrative of the night about to take a sharp turn and not have a story that can get put together very quickly,” he said.
Amid all the criticism of 2016 coverage, Healy said his top priority has been making sure that the Times reports on the full range of voters — from all types of conservatives and liberals to third-party voters and independents — so that the results, whatever they are, can be thoroughly explained.
“I think there’s been a real determination here to get this right tomorrow night,” he said on Monday. “Not being predictive, but to feel like we’ve covered the country and voters and President Trump in a way that really illuminates what’s going on.”