Nov. 17-30, 2000
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To the Editor of Inside UVA
IN THIS ISSUE

U.Va. professor advised ABC against calling Florida

By Charlotte Crystal

"The night is all just a blur," said Paul Freedman, an assistant professor of government and foreign affairs, who spent election night on the high-pressure "decision desk" at ABC News, helping the network call the election.

"It was very tense," Freedman said. "The phones were ringing constantly. People were shouting. People were screaming. Ted Koppell kept calling up and saying, 'I need to get on a plane. Am I going to Austin or Nashville?' "

Koppell, like the rest of the country, was still waiting for the answer to his question a week later as the recount of votes in Florida continued in this historically close presidential election.

But that night, as all the world watched the U.S. presidential election unfold on network television, Freedman drank cup after cup of black coffee and stared at a computer screen that pulsed with three streams of data from 17 states. It was this data -- exit polls, precinct reports and county election results -- that he and his partner, an old election hand, used to call the elections they had been assigned.

"At the top of every hour, the head of the decision desk asked for our calls," Freedman said. "We'd give her our calls, she'd talk to the production booth upstairs, and literally, within 30 seconds, you'd see the graphics on the TV screen.

"The first time I was asked to make a call, my heart was pounding," Freedman said.

Since 1990, all the networks have paid jointly for the same data gathering operation. On election night, Voter News Services feeds its network clients national election data by computer pipeline from the World Trade Center. Since they all use the same data, the networks must find other ways to gain a competitive advantage.

"The networks compete to call the races first," Freedman said. "You need two things to be successful on election night. You need to be right and you need to be first. It's easy to be either one. It's hard to be both."

A bank of television screens, showing all the other networks' election night broadcasts, lit one of the walls where Freedman worked with a team of about a dozen political scientists, statisticians and election night pros. Although the sound was turned down, they could see when the competing networks called a race.

Freedman had traveled to New York the week before the election to get up to speed on the computer system he would be using and to build up his background knowledge of historical voting patterns and the state senate races he would be following.

"That night, I didn't have to agonize over Ted Kennedy winning in Massachusetts and Orrin Hatch in Utah was not a nail biter, Freedman said.

Instead, it let him focus on the races that were too close to call.

"ABC was the only network not to make a call in the Washington state senate race," Freedman said. "I held firm on that.

Despite the caution of Freedman and a few other members of the decision team, however, ABC gave in to the tremendous pressure to call the presidential race in Florida, joining the other networks in calling the state first for Al Gore around 8 p.m., then for George Bush about 2 a.m., and finally withdrawing the call entirely.

"In hindsight, the best thing to do would have been to say it was too close to call and not call it at all," Freedman said. "What was at stake in Florida was who our next president would be. The pressure on the networks to make a call was extraordinarily high ... I'm proud that ABC made the wrong Gore call last."

Would he do it again?

"There's no denying it was fun," Freedman said, "scary but fun. It was a night to remember."


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