Something came home to me last night that I’ve realized for a while but crystalized for me in a new way. If you’re into elections and want to watch results on election night you should never watch them on TV. Ever. If you were watching last night’s election on TV you probably had the sense the race was a close run thing with the lead bouncing back and forth, with Herschel Walker possibly mounting a comeback after weeks of coverage that made Raphael Warnock appear a favorite to win a full term. If you watched the results through my curated Twitter feed of election number crunchers, though, you saw something very different: from the very first returns it looked likely — and then with growing clarity — that the results would roughly bear out the polls, which showed Warnock with a modest but significant lead. The final results this morning show Warnock beating Walker by just shy of three percentage points, almost on the dot of what the consensus of polls predicted.
This doesn’t mean that everything was clear from the start in that number-crunching conversation. This gets us into the nature of uncertainty itself, different kinds of uncertainty. My point is that there was little or no gyrating back and forth. We went into the night thinking the probable election outcome was X. The very first results supported the eventual outcome of X but were too limited to confirm it. As the results came in they continued to point to X with a mounting likelihood. With more and more data that mounting likelihood of X moved toward relative certainty. The point, as I noted, is that there was no drama as the statewide results lead sloshed back and forth between the two candidates. (In an era of partisanized voting methods — early vs. same day — those interim leads are basically irrelevant. November 8th was the first election in which I literally didn’t watch them at all.) Sometimes watching the numbers up close like this does contain a lot of drama. It definitely did on election night 2020 and on election night 2022 as well. But that’s real drama, contradictory signals in the data as the results come in, not fake drama.
Of course, you really don’t need to spend your election night poring over data to glean what you’ll know for a certainty if you wait a few hours (or, sometimes, a few days). You really can just have a nice dinner and read a book or stream the latest TV show. That’s probably what you should do. But if that’s not your thing, don’t watch the returns on TV.
Which brings us to the question: Why is the TV coverage so bad?
First is the simple need for drama. There’s an obvious need to keep it interesting. Second, though, is that the details are kinda technical. I don’t have either the statistical training or the knowledge of political geography to do what these professional election analysts and number crunchers do. But I know enough to understand and interpret what they’re saying. That takes a fair amount of experience as a consumer of political news. Thats just not a mass market thing. You cant just port that stuff easily to TV. It would be hard to follow. In some cases, it would be incomprehensible to most people. It wouldn’t make for good TV. You would need to adapt it. And while there’s been some of that, it’s just not there yet. For now, it’s a specialist, a political junky kind of thing.
So if that’s you, if you’re into politics and basically conversant in it, don’t watch any of it on TV on election night.