If one were to generalize, probably the most successful destinations for voters, whether they wanted a quick summary of results or to delve deeply into the demographics or even state-by-state data from the exit polls, were the Web sites of the broadcast and cable TV news organizations.
If one wanted to see early on, for instance, that “late decider” voters in Missouri, those making up their minds at the last minute who to vote for, broke heavily Democratic—a strong signal of which way this race would tilt several hours before the race would be called—the TV Web sites generally had this information in a way that was easy to find.
The TV Web sites tried to offer their audiences a variety of tools for following a complex national midterm election, one in which the story line involved more than 50 key races across 10 states. There were customized results trackers, blogs, links, video, exit polls, vehicles for user content, and even some semi-shameless plugs for the on-air talent.
And unlike the Web sites of major newspapers, they did not have to worry about the mix of local versus national information.
While there were differences in organization, information, and design, generally the TV Web sites were among the richest and easiest to navigate.
One hint was that by the end of the night the Drudge Report largely consisted of links to several of them.
In practice, the sites served different functions depending on whether they represented a broadcast network—which were not on the air for a large chunk of the night—or the cable channel—whose TV programs could match the Web for speed. For the broadcast networks, the Web sites were their place for deeper and continued coverage. And for all of the sites, the strength of the online operations was their ability to allow the user to customize data and go deep inside the numbers/issues/demographics of a big race once the results were rolling in. On CNN TV, Wolf Blitzer at one point said that while Virginia’s senate race was close, he had no idea which precincts had reported in. Yet online users to various sites would have been linked to the Virginia Board of Election where they could see actual county-by-county vote tallies and easily know more than Wolf did.
One area that several sites tried to set up with more uneven results was staff-produced blogs. Potentially, these up-to-the-minute reports from correspondents and producers could be richer at purveying important inside information than much of the punditry that fills the airwaves on TV. Sometimes they did. But there seems no clear sense of what a reportorial blog online really means at this point.
Another feature with potential, but which probably needs enriching, are public discussion boards. In an era when focus groups on TV can seem familiar and staged, exit polls reduce the public to an abstraction, and pundits carry so much air time, the discussion boards online can offer a stronger sense of the public mood than the handful of emails that might be read on the air by a Jack Cafferty in response to whatever question he has asked. But it is not yet clear how to realize that potential.
For all the considerable strengths, however, the television Web sites still probably represent a work in progress, particularly on a night when the important and expensive editorial talent is still expected to stand in front of a camera, not a computer screen. Some of the TV sites were slow to update results, to change photos, and to generally provide fresh insights. Most were slower than their TV siblings in calling races. And it’s still up the users to decide how much time and energy to spend searching a site for the information they really want. In some cases, the PEJ monitors had trouble figuring out how the site functioned.
The “You Decide 2006” site was blue and flashy, relatively easy to navigate, but also somewhat cluttered, according to our coders. It took some time to distinguish the various sections and figure out what was being updated. And there wasn’t a lot of fresh information being regularly posted.
The election page was anchored by the top center graphic called “Balance of Power,” which tallied the races. There was a drop down menu that allowed the user to choose a state, each of which had a separate Web page with all the races and candidates listed. A “Personal Race Tracker” opened in a separate window in which the user could add up to10 races and track the results as they came in. But you needed to have the “Race Tracker” window open or to go to the individual state page to see live results. Another main election graphic was a rollover map called “What’s up for grabs in Nov. 7, 2006 elections.”
There were no podcasts, RSS, email alert options or election videos.. And some of the projections of Election Day winners were being made on the cable channel a good deal ahead of when they showed up online. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse’s unseating of Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island was announced on the Fox New Channel some minutes before being posted online. Another example was Bob Casey’s Pennsylvania win over Republican Senator Rick Santorum.
As elsewhere, a number of the early afternoon stories focused on glitches and problems in the voting, a story that evaporated into a non-issue as the day went on. A 7:50 p.m. story on Wall Street rooting for gridlocked government was old news. But once many of the polls started closing at 8 p.m., that kind of overview was quickly rendered obsolete by the battle for control of Congress.
In the early part of the day, the CNN site “America Votes 2006” had a very clean conventional homepage look. Of course, that was before the action heated up and when the top story on the site was both stale and prescient: “Analysts: Discontent over Iraq may favor Dems.”
The site was set up to allow users to look at the election in a number of ways—Issues, Senate, House, Governor, Ballot Measures, Campaign Headquarters, and Election Exchange. There was a race tracker—in this case “Track Your Races”—that created a page for the user to follow selected contests. The Election Exchange was another stab at interactivity, with surfers invited to post “videos, photos, comments and more.”
Another feature, Campaign Headquarters, which invited readers to “go behind the scenes with the politicians and the correspondents who cover them”, was basically a public relations plug for CNN, but tastefully, it was pushed toward the bottom of the page.
One handy item, posted shortly after 7 pm, was analyst Jeff Greenfield’s hour-by-hour guide of what to watch for on election night ranging from Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in New York (was it big enough to “make a case for herself in ‘08”) to how well the exit polls worked this time out.
Once the votes starting coming in, CNN’s site was frequently updated with new stories—usually just amending the previous story a bit to reflect the newest results. In addition to the main page, there was an easy to use link to each House of Congress and how all elections were progressing. It was easy to navigate and offered many different ways of looking at the data. Steady “Breaking News” alerts, usually revealing new projections and often posted inside a bright yellow banner, provided a sense of immediacy and energy to the site.
A “Story Highlights” box which accompanied new stories was an easy way of keeping users informed of the context of results. So when, at about 9:45 p.m., the site reported that Democrats had picked up three key House seats in Kentucky and Indiana, it reminded readers that “exit polls show national issues key in House races” and “Democrats need gain of 15 seats to take control.”
The site was relatively easy to navigate. There were large photos on the top of the page that reflected the major campaign story. A blog from the NBC News political unit called First Read was also available. And the site was set up to search quickly either by headlines, video, key races or discussion board.
Most of the headlines were text-based stories that came from the wire, MNSBC or such MSNBC partners as the Washington Post and Newsweek—with a few video clips added to the mix. The video collection was culled from several sources including “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert and what appeared to be video from MSNBC and NBC News reporters.
A “Key Races” map allowed you to move your mouse over a thumb tack icon and get a snapshot of a district, the candidates, projections from Charlie Cook, and links to full candidate profiles as well as more information on the state in play and its demographics. Another feature of note was a discussion board on the campaign that seemed to attract some lively action.
During the course of election day MSNBC’s blog, First Read, offered a lot of hyperlocal, highly focused coverage, whether it was a report on the election day weather in Tennessee or a judicial ruling in Denver about whether to keep the polls open longer. A lot of this material came from NBC reporters who had trouble making it on that network’s air. And it lent a sense that this site was really the place to go on Nov. 7 for hard core political junkies who wanted access to the fuller resources of the MSNBC/NBC team.
As the day went on, the narrative changed from FBI concerns about possible voter fraud in Virginia to taking the pulse of the nation (“Election Results unlikely to soothe angry voters”) to the stewardship of the two major architects of the Democratic strategy (“Emanuel and Schumer at the helm”) to actual projections (“Two Senate races already decided.”).
For the broadcast networks whose airtime was limited on election night, the Web sites really were a crucial way to try and extend the brand on Election Day—as was the case with “CBS News Campaign 06.”
The layout of the page placed a lead story, such as “Reports of Problems Pepper Election Day,” prominently in the front center channel of the page, with several connected links, including a chance to look at attack ads. The right sidebar of the page had links to opinion writers and CBS News polls and there were also links to podcasts, RSS, email alerts and wireless alerts. The interactive Campaign 2006 link provided a rundown of each state’s races when you clicked that state on a U.S. map. The site posted exit polls (once the real polls closed) and the vote tally as precincts reported in.
In addition, the site invited public commentary, which ranged this night from the thoughtful to the absurd.
Like a number of sites, CBS’s started sluggishly with the early coverage focused issues like turnout, fraud and problems at the polls. (The media were clearly geared up for the latter to be a major story.) These stories appeared in the form of short, one-to-two minute video clips and narratives.
A little after 6 p.m., the site posted what proved to be a very effective live race tracker continuously updating elections that had been projected. One logistical problem was that there was not enough space devoted to the feature, requiring the user to do a lot of scrolling to process all the races that had been projected.
On the afternoon of Nov. 7, with the real action yet to come, the site gave attention to such stories as “Poll Worker Allegedly Chokes Voter.” But with the network off the air until 10 p.m. (except for brief updates), it was the first place that CBS could such crucial results as Ben Cardin’s Senate win in Maryland (shortly after 9:15) and Sheldon Whitehouse’s Rhode Island victory over incumbent GOP Senator Lincoln Chafee (shortly after 9:30).
ABC News’s “Vote 2006” site was an appealing light blue and easy to navigate. The election page was anchored by a center section with a slideshow-type presentation of five main stories. Two of those were links to their own features—a state-by-state fact sheet and a map that began live updating of results. A Vote 2006 Scorecard was another live feature.
There was plenty of synergy between the site and the network with cross promotion of ABC anchors and streaming video of live coverage on “ABC News Now.” (Early in the day, that largely included an interview with lead ABC anchor Charlie Gibson and promos of the upcoming election coverage.)
The Note, the network’s edgy political blog, was not updated after the morning. But a staff blog called Political Radar was updated during the evening, though infrequently. If you wanted to know what the president was having for dinner, this was the place for you.
The site did not offer RSS or podcasts or election-related email alerts, but there was an email option for people to report any troubles they had at their polling places.
In some ways, the Web site supplemented the network by making calls in some crucial races—Democrat Robert Menendez hanging on to his seat in New Jersey and Robert Casey unseating Republican Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania—between 8 and 9 o’clock when the ABC crew was in its prime time down time. Conversely, once Gibson and company got back on the air after 9:30, the site seemed to lag behind the network when it came to making projections.
The weather in Tennessee was a big story both in cable and online early in the day. But the ABC site may have had the best angle on that story when at around 6 p.m., it posted a quote from Democratic Senator Charles Schumer explaining that although it was raining hard in the eastern Republican part of the Volunteer State, the skies were literally brighter in the Democratic strongholds in the western part of the state.