Network news divisions got skittish about calling presidential elections following their colossally terrible performance in 2000. In case you forgot, they all called Florida for Al Gore, then uncalled it, then called it for Bush (following in the trustworthy footsteps of Fox News!), then uncalled the whole election. Their newfound prudence was rewarded in 2004 when leaked exit polls said John Kerry had the whole thing in the bag (oops). But this year the TV guys have their swagger back. Here's a CBS News executive telling the Times why California can suck it:
"We could know Virginia at 7," he said. "We could know Indiana before 8. We could know Florida at 8. We could know Pennsylvania at 8. We could know the whole story of the election with those results. We can't be in this position of hiding our heads in the sand when the story is obvious."
Eight o'clock on the East coast is, of course, before most voters in California even get off work.
CBS News is not the only one that's cocky. Slate is refusing to "engage in a weird Kabuki drama that pretends McCain could win California," editor David Plotz told the Times. NBC News said it's an "unfortunate circumstance" that it may be calling the election before polls close elsewhere, but OH WELL.
It's actually true, as we said ourselves, that the presidential race could be wrapped up around 8 p.m. There's really no way California is going for McCain or Texas for Obama. But an early call for the Democratic nominee could hold down lefty turnout in California, thus helping anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 as well as Proposition 4, which imposes certain restrictions on abortion rights.
Not that the nets will or should care about those unintended side effects. Where they should probably be careful is in calling the swing states. With interest in this election so intense, and cable and online competition at new highs, the pressure to extrapolate from early precinct returns in states like Ohio, Indiana and Florida will be high. Exit polls, set for initial release at 5 p.m., will add only add to the pressure.
And the "swing" states only start to matter if the election ends up way closer than is now expected. As things stand at present, it looks like the only real dilemma will be determining when Obama supporters should put their elitist French champagne on ice.