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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2000 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Tony Snow

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Anatomy of a mega goof --- and the learning of political humility

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THIS ELECTION should have taught the political class a simple lesson: embrace humility.

Let's run through a roster of high-and-mighties who were laid low. I'll begin with the television networks --- including my primary employer, Fox TV.

The major scandal this year had to do with erroneous and erratic voting projections, especially in Florida. The source for this was the Voter News Service, an operation financed and backed by the networks.

VNS conducts extensive exit polling in each state of the union, covering every congressional district. It cross-checks results by sampling precincts that have strong tendencies to vote for one party or the other.

In addition, VNS employs a half-dozen models that predict winners, margins of victory and the like. When all the augurs point in a given direction with a strong measure of certainty, VNS feels free to "call" a race. If the numbers for their model areas look funny, VNS might withhold judgment for the entire state.

Networks don't necessarily accept that verdict, however. Each television operation has its own devices for verifying VNS results. We at Fox employ separate statistical screens and sample precincts, and a team of adepts looks carefully at all the data. The "decision desk" calls an election only when each member feels comfortable with the numbers.

Of course, even smart people sometimes get things wrong, and all of us in television compounded the error by agreeing to call some races before the polls had closed. Florida was one such state: Voters in Northwestern Florida live in the Central time zone and finish their balloting a full hour after the rest of the state. When NBC declared Gore the victor, citizens in the Panhandle still had nearly an hour to cast ballots. We at Fox predicted a winner eight minutes before the polls closed.

This premature call could have affected voting in other key states: Bush lost by 6,000 votes or fewer in Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Gore supporters might have become smug in such places as Tennessee and Arkansas, although both states these days are listing Republican.

Television grandees need to admit they messed up and adopt the following resolutions: Don't project results before polls close in the affected state. Insist on even higher levels of certainty. And be more patient.

Next on the humility train, the Bush campaign: While Al Gore was working phones and hustling for votes last Tuesday, George W. Bush's advisers were calling around to prepare for a presidential transition. That pretty much encapsulates the final days of the campaign: Gore working, Bush and his minions assuming they had won.

Seasoned politicians should know better than to nurture this kind of hubris. Bill Clinton, after losing a gubernatorial race in 1980, always insisted on running as if he were behind.

That's wise counsel: Voters like to see a candidate grunting and groveling on the hustings. Bush allies throughout the country were urging the candidate to deliver a nationally televised speech about big themes -- and his 1976 DUI conviction in Maine. He demurred, sending chief strategist Karl Rove out to predict a 5-point, 320-electoral-vote win.

Perhaps as a result, three out of every four undecided voters flocked to Al Gore during the final weekend of the campaign. And Team Bush had no idea: It had suspended polling.

Then there's Al Gore: He outhustled Bush and eked out a popular plurality. That's an awful tally for a man who could boast of peace and prosperity, and had legions of union workers and activists at his disposal. Gore lost Tennessee -- the first man to lose his home state since George McGovern in 1972. He also lost Arkansas -- the first time an outgoing president saw his state go the other way in nearly a century. Many Gore voters nationwide said they thought they were voting for a conservative -- hardly the label one would attach to Gore's candidacy.

Now, the good news: Our political system enforces humility. It is deliberately inefficient. It does not permit leaders to undertake rash actions, and it gives voters regular opportunities to kick out lackluster leaders. We're about to witness two years of glacial coalition government.

Neither political party will have a workable majority, let alone a mandate -- which means that, two years from now, we're likely to have a congressional election every bit as momentous and exciting as this year's presidential race.


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