So I just read an article that I just saw on MSNBC.com, called “How NBC News projects election winners” , which probably clears up a lot of confusion on the terminology the media uses on primary/election nights.
First of all, the following distinguishes the differences between the main terminology we often hear on the TV or see on the web when they are calling an election:
Projected winner: NBC has made a projection that a candidate will win the race, but the vote count is not complete. This call is made only after all the polls are scheduled to have closed in a state.
Apparent winner: NBC has tallied enough votes to indicate that a candidate has won the race, but the results may well depend upon a potential recount or final official tallies.
Winner: A candidate who has clearly won the race, beyond the normal margin for a recount. “Winner” will not be used unless returns make the outcome a virtual certainty. Note that neither of these terms refers to the “official” winner, since most states take weeks to certify a winner in an election.
Too early to call: There is not enough data in the NBC News decision computer systems to allow analysts to make a call.
Too close to call: While there is data in the systems, the numbers are too close to allow analysts to make a call.
The first three are not a source of confusion really, as they are pretty self explanatory, but the latter two are often used interchangeably even though there is a distinct difference.
Most simply (and important to note), an election can only be “called” once all the polls in that particular state have closed for obvious reasons.
The article describes exit polls as when voters leaving the polling places in certain districts are asked not only how they voted but also “are handed a questionnaire with both demographic (sex, race, age) and attitudinal questions (Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?)”.
Click here to read the whole article.