When the major television networks -hours before the polls closed last November--declared Ronald Reagan the winner over Jimmy Carter, millions of Americans who had intended to vote stayed home.
A new study by Universtiy of Michigan researchers confirms that about one-quarter of those who planned to vote in the 1980 presidential election later in the day decided not to if they heard the networks' projections of Carter's subsequent concession.
Until now there has been much speculation and criticism of the netwoeks, but this report is the first hard evidence that election-day television coverage may have grown from merely reporting to influencing the outcome.
State election officials and political partisans -especially Democrats -have cried "foul" at the media projections, and the new study gives support to their complaints. It concludes that "it was Carter and the Democrats who were disadvantaged." Democratic candidates lost several key races on the West Coast (where the networks named Reagan the winner nearly three hours before the polls closed) by a handful of votes. Of those congressional seats which changed hands in the West, Republicans picked up four while Democrats gained only one.
"The part that bothers me is how much attention is placed on the presidential race," said John Jackson of the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies. "I think it is unfortunate with all the nonpresidential races going on."
Network officials now are reexamining their election coverage in light of this new information, which was commissioned in part by ABC News.
"It's a study that's been done with great care," said Les Crystal, senior executive producer for NBC News. "Obviously, I've got to look at it closely. We all have to."
The concern is not simply partisan. Groups such as the League of Women Voters have warned that the race to project election victories may have "serious and harmful effects on voter confidence in the integrity of the election system and in the value of an individual vote," as league president Ruth Hinerfeld testified earlier this year.
"People's likelihood of voting is related to their perception of the value of their vote in determining the election's outcome," the new study says. "Events that alter that perceived value alter turnout."
Several bills pending on Capitol Hill attempt to mitigate the effects of early poll projections by changing election times and dates of prohibiting such projections.
Some would require that polls open and close at the same time across the country. Others would change the national election day to Sunday (as is done in some European countries where voter turnout is much higher than in the United States) or declare a national holiday. Another bill would prohibit election results or projections from being broadcast before the polls close. Various objections have been raised to all these suggestions, particularly any measure that would impinge on free speech or press rights.
Congressional hearings were held last spring and more are scheduled for later this year. Many people, including Professor Jackson, feel it would be better to wait for the networks' response before imposing new government regulations on voting procedures.
The just-released study is careful not to state exactly how many Americans did not vote because of network projections or the Carter concession. But based on telephone interviews with some 1,800 people (about the size of the typical national poll), the figure is likely to be in the millions. The total turnout in 1980 was 86.5 million.
"Among eligible Eastern respondents who had not voted by 6 p.m. and who had two hours left to vote, 60 percent of those who did not hear either report (the TV projections or Carter's televised concession) voted while among comparable people who did hear the outcome reported, only 33 percent voted," the report states. "Among eligible Westerners. . .84 percent of those who did not hear went to the polls, compared to 64 percent of those who did hear.
"The three networks made their officials projections between 8:15 p.m. EST and 10:32 p.m. EST, but made it plain much earlier that a landslide was imminent ," the Michigan team reports. "Thus expectations about the value of the individual vote, for those who had not voted, were changed suddenly and dramatically."
It remains to be seen whether the television networks will change, or be forced to change, their coverage techniques just as dramatically.