As a veteran analyst, CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield has seen the advantages and fantastic drawbacks of mis-controlled exit polls. But given election night on-air responsibilities he thinks the 5pm quarantine is a good compromise. He’s looking forward to dancing the line between being poll-informed and spilling secrets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Greenfield is a senior political correspondent for CBS News. He knows first-hand the havoc flawed poll data can cause. He wrote a book reflecting his own embarrassment, called Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow! and he says that the 5 p.m. quarantine imposed in 2006 was made to order. JEFF GREENFIELD: The 5 o'clock quarantine was a great thing because what was happening was that first-wave, highly misleading numbers were leaking out all over the place. And since these polls are kind of the crack cocaine of political journalists, people were going nuts.
And at least at 5 o'clock you've got enough information to begin to shape a story with a lot more reliability than with these completely inadequate numbers at 1 o'clock. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But can you explain to me what is this carefully choreographed ballet that on-air people, like yourself, have to do to tease out the information you think is reliable, keep the viewers with you, while all sorts of other information is just flooding out onto the Internet and everybody is going to have their laptop open even as they watch you? JEFF GREENFIELD: Well, there’s no question that the explosion through the Internet has changed the game. And what it actually has done is to make it more transparent. What used to happen is that everybody in the political world, particularly if it was a blowout, knew the results, but the public didn't. And now websites like Drudge and everybody else were posting the first-wave information.
But the other part is this is not a process on election night of simply reporting numbers. It is true that there are some elections where – in 1996, you know, an official example, where you could have gone away in March, come back on election night and not missed a thing - [CHUCKLING] - because it was a flatline election. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But let's say that it becomes a blowout. Now, of course, casual political people who simply want to know who won would be able to know who won, you know, by 8 o'clock at night. Obama would be winning states like Virginia and Indiana or - and/or North Carolina.
But for people who are interested in this process beyond that, there’s a whole lot to talk about. How did people decide that they were comfortable with the idea of Barack Obama as president? BROOKE GLADSTONE: But hasn't that been the story since the primaries, I mean, not the exact same story, but pretty much the drift? JEFF GREENFIELD: Well - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't you worry that you may end up with not much to say on that big night? JEFF GREENFIELD: Oh, Brooke, I think the election of the first African-American president probably will not leave too many of us without anything to say, [BROOKE LAUGHS] in addition to which, whatever happens, in my view, at least, makes for a really interesting story if you think about politics as more than just the horserace. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, I can take away from this that when you’re sitting there in front of the cameras on CBS, and NBC and ABC have called Florida and Ohio, and CBS hasn't, you’re not going to break a sweat. JEFF GREENFIELD: You know, I think [LAUGHS] we're not at a time anymore when if NBC beats CBS in Florida by 12 minutes, this doesn't strike me as a particularly crucial part of news coverage. The old rules of, oh, boy, we called Nevada seven minutes before the other guys - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Remember when that used to matter? JEFF GREENFIELD: Yes, exactly so. It was a kind of a “whose is bigger” thing, if you'll pardon the [BROOKE LAUGHS] inelegant way to put it. And, frankly, there’s just better things to talk about on election night. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff, thank you so much. JEFF GREENFIELD: Okay, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.