Networks Calling Elections: How it Began

Surely the most famous case of morning-after newspaper reporting of an election was the Chicago Tribune’s Dewey Defeats Truman headline of November 3, 1948.  But the era of television was just beginning, and the tradition of televised and near-real-time election calls began with a corporate PR stunt.

In 1952, the Eckert-Mauchly computer corporation, which had recently been acquired by Remington Rand, suggested to CBS News that their Univac computer might be used for election-night projections. Univac, the first computer to be ‘mass-produced’ (46 were eventually sold and installed) was already becoming famous.  It was an awesome machine, weighing 8 tons and incorporating 5000 vacuum tubes.  Its internal memory capacity was a then-impressive 1000 words, or about 12 KB.  Price was about $1 million, in 1952 money.

Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was considered the favorite to win, although the election was expected to be close.  But at 8:30 PM, with only 5% of the votes counted, Univac issued its initial prediction:  100-to-1 odds for Eisenhower, with 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93.  The CBS news director thought the prediction was ridiculous, and it was not aired.

Meanwhile, Eckert-Mauchly’s statistician (Max Woodbury) was entering data to reflect new returns as they came in….he may have also tuned the algorithm to give less-extreme results, though this is not clear.  At 9PM, Univac issued another prediction:  8-7 odds for Eisenhower…and this prediction was announced.

But then, Woodbury  discovered that he had added an extra zero to the Stevenson numbers for New York state.  After this entry was corrected, the machine gave the same answer as before: 100-to-1 odds for Eisenhower, with 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93.  I can’t determine whether or not this revised forecast was televised or not, but the final result was an Eisenhower victory, 442-89 electoral votes.

Late at night, CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood made an embarrassing confession to millions of viewers: Univac had made an accurate prediction hours before, but CBS hadn’t aired it.

This election-night affair certainly helped solidify the idea that Univac was the name in computers…a nice PR win, though it didn’t seem to help the company very much in the end…and made computers and algorithmic predictions a regular feature of election-night reporting.  Today, of course, such predictions are a commonplace from media of all types.  And some of these media organizations seem to have developed a rather…exalted…opinion of their role.  In a tweet sent out on election day, 2020…and soon withdrawn..the New York Times asserted that:

The role of declaring the winner of a presidential election in the US falls to the news media.

Such ‘declarations’, of course, have no legal standing: they are merely estimates, as much as the varying 1952 CBS estimates were, and the NYT’s tweet was an assertion of arrogance and privilege, surprising only in that it was so out in the open.

Some links:

14 thoughts on “Networks Calling Elections: How it Began”

  1. If they weren’t such obviously biased hacks people might believe them but they don’t seem to grok that, either.

  2. Such an insane level of arrogance, with nothing to back it up. What is scary how many people buy their dross.

  3. The shenanigans with “calling” states this year were so blatantly obvious, with red states never getting called, blue states getting called early, etc. (to say nothing of the coordinated freezing of the counting in several blue states, including the farcical “broken pipe” story in Georgia), that there’s no way to take it at all seriously. It’s quite clear the the GOP needs to actively break the MSM. Their establishment won’t do it, but they’re dinosaurs and soon to be gone anyway. The current behavior is absolutely insane and no one would believe it possible even a decade ago, although some of us were warning it was coming since the day after the 2016 election.

  4. My memory is that the networks called the elections years ago and we tended to believe them. Final counts and the Electoral College were regarded as formalities. We had the sense that they knew more than us. They followed these things. This was their line of study. We trusted them at worst to be honestly wrong. I say this with mild confidence because I was quite cynical myself and did not doubt things until later. Also, I grew up withe the Manchester Union Leader as my hometown paper, and do not recall there ever being any suggestion that the networks and newspapers, however much they might personally want one side to win, were trying to affect the results in any way. It was not just failure to question and report, either. Everyone knew that the voting was crooked in Cook County, IL.

    The idea of serious media bias, enough to suppress information or perform sleight-of-hand first occurred to me in noticing the coverage of Christians, particularly Catholics and what we would now call evangelicals. It was considered acceptable to make fun of them or level serious accusations, and supposed free-speech, objective reporters would seemingly not notice. Once my attention was caught, I noticed more. Increasingly, it seemed that reporters could not get it right on religious matters, and increasingly on conservative political matters, that they did not understand the POV’s of these people. They thought they understood and were only asking hard-hitting questions, when in fact they misunderstood and were asking stupid, insulting questions.

    I don’t see this as that different now. Despite claims that it is all much worse under Trump, I don’t think so. They were clearly rooting against Reagan, adn would give air time to folks who wanted him dead.

  5. “Franchise” is a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov.

    In the future, the United States has converted to an “electronic democracy” where the computer Multivac selects a single person to answer a number of questions. Multivac will then use the answers and other data to determine what the results of an election would be, avoiding the need for an actual election to be held.

    The idea of a computer predicting whom the electorate would vote for instead of actually holding an election was probably inspired by the UNIVAC I’s correct prediction of the result of the U.S. presidential election in 1952.

  6. I liked Asimov as a kid, until I read the final Foundation book, but the whole psychohistory nonsense was always obviously dumb. Franchise sounds like the same sort of mechanistic silliness.

    Re: calling states, I see they just now are “officially” “calling” AK for Trump, which could have safely been done Tuesday night, if they were actually acting in good faith.

    AVI: I honestly don’t see how you can say that the MSM didn’t fundamentally change after 2016. The GOP needs to react accordingly. We don’t treat The Nation as a serious outlet, it’s time to treat them all the same way.

  7. The first attempt at using computers to *influence* election outcomes, as opposed to merely predicting them, appears to have been in the Kennedy-vs-Nixon election of 1960. This project, and the novel that was inspired by it, are described in my post The 480.

    re the J Storrs Hall comment above, here’s an excerpt from the novel:

    “And one further thing, Book,” Mad said. “Simulations Enterprises can predict what people will do in a situation which they have never heard of before. That was the whole point of the UN in the Midwest example. No one has gone out there and asked them to vote on whether we should get out of the UN, but Dev outlined a procedure by which you can predict how they will react…if they ever do have to vote on it.

    Again Bookbinder had the sharp sense of unreality. Unreal people were being asked invented questions and a result came out on green, white-lined paper…and when you got around to the real people six months later with the real question they would act the way the computer had said they would.

    Well, sometimes…

  8. I don’t see this as that different now. Despite claims that it is all much worse under Trump, I don’t think so. They were clearly rooting against Reagan, adn would give air time to folks who wanted him dead.

    I don’t think it was as bad because the Democrats were still running Congress and the leaders were old time pols who were not as radical.

    Sure, there were crazies like the Boland Amendment, but Reagan figured out a way around it. Trump would be impeached again. They did go kind of crazy over “Irangate” and had a radical judge as “Special Council.” Nothing much happened. Ollie North made fools of them.

  9. there were cold war liberals like tip o’neill who were easily manipulated, but they occasionally did support our proxy wars in central america, there were other influences like robert whites center for international policy, that provided the staff to john kerry’s committee, there was also the christics daniel sheehan, that planted the crazy conspiracism that made it way to wiseguy, miami vice and crime story, private maytag who slandered nick sandmann was an outgrowth of that

    I keep saying to keep charles mccarry’s better angels fiction, but reality fails to oblige, in this instance, computers are used to rig an election against a pragmatic businessman, franklin mallory, who is anathema to much of the political class including the intelligence apparat, mccarry was an irish mustang in a field of boston brahmins, and hence he wrote about a whole class of them, like the hubbards and christopher, like the alsops and the bundys,

  10. I agree with Mike K .. you still had a Democrat Party with Monahan, Sam Nunn, Zell Miller, and Tip O’Neil in charge or at least making significant contributions, not AOC and the rest of the Squad.

    He’s also right that this all predates Trump, often by a lot.

    Gary Sick and the claim that the Reagan campaign coordinated with the Iranians to hold the hostages. That even generated Congressional investigations though everyone but the cranks believed it when nothing was found.

    The whole ‘Ronnie Ray-gun’ nuclear war schtick, recycled for Trump by Hillary.

    ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’, and a preview of the amiable dunce/evil mastermind dichotomy that would frame W.

    Sam Donaldson, the ur-Jim Acosta, yelling questions over Marine One’s rotor wash.

    Evan Thomas’s “Kinsley Gaffee” that the press wanted Kerry to win, and estimating the favorable coverage was worth a 15 percent boost in the polls.

    I do think the real explosion came after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the press realized that if they pushed a narrative hard enough they could crash a President’s approval ratings as they drove W’s down from the mid-50s in late 2004 to the low-30s by 2006.

    They redoubled that effort against Trump.

  11. Let me be blunt. “Journalists,” as reporters love to style themselves, are breath-taking examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They hold themselves out as all-seeing, all-knowing sages, yet journalism majors are in a dead heat with education and sociology majors for the dumbest people on every campus.

    The role of declaring the winner of a presidential election in the US falls to the news media.

    The news media? Why not the NBA, or MADD, or the NRA, or the erstwhile cast members of Hee Haw?

  12. Oh, be blunt, Jay – be as blunt as you like. We are seeing an election stolen in real time, before our eyes, with the enthusiastic connivance of the Establishment News Media.
    The contempt of the managerial elite and the media is so freaking obvious, it’s as if it is in forty-foot-high letters embellished with string lights and fireworks.

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