As just about everyone is aware, there was a major kerfuffle this week about the Associated Press and its call on Monday that Hillary Clinton had amassed the requisite number of delegates to secure the Democratic nomination (a day before the last major primaries). I’ve no interest in litigating whether it was the right decision or not. Instead, what struck me as a historian of media/journalism is that we’ve invested news media organizations with the power to decide who’s won an election. The Sanders criticism of the AP, that is, tries to delegitimize the call and therefore starts from the premise that the call is considered both legitimate and powerful.
Media organizations, of course, play no formal role in the election process (as any good debate about superdelegates will remind you). During the primaries, the elections are run either by the state governments or the political parties themselves, so official totals reside with them. Journalists report on these totals as they are counted and, when they believe it has become obvious who will lead by the end, “call” the race in favor of one candidate or another. Here’s the part that is not intuitive: we, the American public, treat those calls as authoritative. If the AP or the New York Times or NBC News has said that Jane Smith has won election as a state’s governor, they by gum she’s won it. No matter that the Division of Elections in her state still has 65% of the vote left to be counted.
My question is, why? Why do Americans start with the assumption that the media are not only reflecting vote totals and “projecting” who will win, but actually “making a call” and deciding the winner? Why have we invested such power in the vote totals reported by the media before results are certified by the government/political entity holding the election? There may well be literature in the field of political science, communications, journalism, or media studies that addresses the question that I’ve missed (please let me know if you know!). But it strikes me as well as being a historical question, and it’s one that’s fascinated me in recent weeks.
If I were to guess with the level of analysis possible in a speculative blog post, I’d point to two possibilities for the phenomenon. First, we’ve been getting election returns from media outlets for a very long time, into the earliest days of the United States and in some areas back into the colonial era. In fact, it’s thanks to newspapers (and the indefatigable Philip Lampi) that we have detailed election returns for the early Republic (1787-1825). When governments reported vote totals, that is, they largely did so through the press. Second, the United States has a fragmented and relatively open system for reporting election returns. Each municipality, precinct, or other unit reports its results publicly and independently. The media report these data as they appear rather than wait for the presiding elections official to certify the result, a process which can take several weeks.
Finally, most elections have enough of a spread in the final result that the media usually aren’t wrong. Usually—I lived through the 2000 election. But the very fact that you thought of Florida in 2000 and the flip-flopping on Election Night between calling the state for George W. Bush (when I went to bed) and moving it back into the “Too Close to Call” column (which I found out when I woke up the next morning) demonstrates my point. The exceptions are rare enough that we remember them.
The question of whether the media should be invested with that power in the American political system is beyond my scope, though it’s important. But in the meantime, I’d love to see a study on how the rhetoric of reporting election results developed through American history, and the ways in which such reporting was treated as tentative or authoritative. If it exists, I’ll read it. If it doesn’t … maybe someone has time.