Were the major news organizations caught napping on the Senate special election in Massachusetts today?

We’re wondering. Polls closed back East at 5 p.m. Pacific time, and we turned on our TV to find that none of the major networks or other news organizations were doing any exit polling. As Wolf Blitzer on CNN said just a little while ago, “We’re doing it the old-fashioned way. We’re waiting until the ballots are counted.”

Sounds good. But I have little doubt that they would have been set up to do exit polling if they had any idea how close this election would be – given the potential ramifications of Republican Scott Brown winning.

Just a month ago, polls showed Brown losing by some 30 points to Democrat Martha Coakley to succeed the late Ted Kennedy. But a combination of Coakley’s coasting and Brown’s aggressive campaigning – aided by bringing in $1 million a day via the Internet in the final days – has made this a very close race in a hurry.

The stakes are high. This is all about health care reform. Should Brown win, the Democrats would no longer have the 60 votes need to break a Republican filibuster – a change that could doom health care reform legislation or at least result in major reworking of it.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the consortium of news outlets that usually conducts exit polls didn’t plan anything because they expected a blowout. By the time everybody realized this was going to be close, Mike Allen of Politico.com notes, the consortium “wasn’t confident a reliable system could be built”  in time.

– Paul Gullixson