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Tifft makes the call on elections

Political junkies who sat with eyes glued to election coverage Tuesday might have hoped they could be the first in the Duke community to know who won-but they were mistaken.

Susan Tifft, Trinity '73 and Patterson professor of the practice of journalism and public policy studies, sat at NBC's Decision Desk as an analyst and called about 14 of the night's Senate races.

Tifft left for NBC's New York studio at 5 a.m. Tuesday and was calling races until 4:15 the next morning. "I think this was the first time I was up for 24 hours since I worked for Time magazine," she said after some much needed rest Wednesday.

NBC selected her as one of four analysts calling U.S. Senate races in part because of her longtime friendship with Evans Witt, president of Princeton Survey Research and former AP poll representative who helped organize Voter News Service. VNS, a consortium of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and The Associated Press, counts votes and conducts exit polls.

"At the Decision Desk, everyone brought slightly different skill sets to the operation-some were highly trained statisticians and others, while understanding statistics, had strong journalism training," Dana Birnberg, who works for Selzer & Company in Des Moines and served as an analyst alongside Tifft, wrote in an e-mail. "Susan is a great example of this blending of skills. Not only does she understand basic statistics, she also had years of experience as a journalist and understood past voting trends."

Before Tifft worked for Time magazine, she worked for the Federal Election Commission as an assistant press secretary and for the Carter re-election campaign.

With memories of the 2000 election, NBC and other networks focused more on accuracy than speed this election. "They had a terrible experience in 2000.... Everyone did," explained Tifft, who went through two weekends of analyst rehearsal and training with NBC. "This time, it was more important to be right than to be first."

Furthermore, tensions simmered behind the scenes as VNS failed the analysts in several ways. At one point, field workers could not enter local poll results due to a system breakdown. Also, VNS did not provide exit polls on the day of the election, preventing networks from interpreting the polls or explaining voter motivations.

"There were some tense moments when the VNS system went down and our screens were frozen," Tifft said.

At one point, the team had to rely on independent survey data from an AP poll because it was coming in much faster than was any VNS data.

NBC employed a multi-step approach to calling the winners of Tuesday's races. Tifft and Birnberg, along with political experts John Lapinski and Greg Fleming, sat at the decision desk, analyzing VNS data as it came in. "We as the analysts were the first call," Tifft explained. "But there were several other mesh screens it had to go to before it reached the viewer."

Each analyst monitored 14 to 16 states, whose polls closed at varying times. Tifft noted that her two most interesting and problematic states were North Carolina and Missouri--close races she ultimately called for Republicans Elizabeth Dole and Jim Talent respectively.

Tifft--who sits on the board of directors of Duke Student Publishing Company, which publishes The Chronicle--said analysts called the states only when they felt comfortable with the data. The information then went to Witt, who served as a "traffic cop"--once he felt comfortable with the call, it went to a quality control manager who evaluated the judgment against a detailed list of data. The final step was ethics chief David McCormick, who sent it to the anchors on the air.

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