This Tuesday, American voters will face an unprecedented day of primary voting. More than 20 states—and American Samoa—will hold caucuses or primaries. Major news organizations are preparing for a very long night, with results pouring in from American Samoa to Alaska. Delegate victories are likely to be determined by previously obscure party rules and thin margins in individual congressional districts.
And no news organization is larger than The Associated Press. Their data and decisions will set the pace for everyone else’s coverage. We asked Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman how the AP plans to keep on top of Tuesday’s challenge.
Clint Hendler: What’s different this time?
Mike Silverman: Last time, it was nothing like this; you have 24 states, all voting at the same time, and so early. It’s taken on the air of a national election, and our planning for it is on the same scale as the November general election. We’ll have similar numbers of people involved.
Our Washington bureau is our headquarters for our presidential election coverage. I just talked to Sandy Johnson, our bureau chief there. She’s going to have about 40 people that day and night working on the election. I asked her how many would she have in November. She said about 50. So it’s on that scale.
CH: Maybe this is an impossible question, but do you know how many people will be involved in the AP’s coverage?
MS: Well, in the Washington Bureau alone there will be 40 or so, as far as editors an reporters in New York, we’ll have about a dozen, because we’ll be looking at some stories from some of the individual states—although our main focus will be on the over-all national picture, and that will be done out of Washington. And in every state where there is a primary there will be half dozen or more AP staffers involved in some way, from the bureau chiefs who are working with our Washington people to call the races, to somebody who will be writing a story on the exit poll results that we get from the particular states, to political reporters who will be writing about the outcome of the races. That’s just AP staff. Then we have literally hundreds of stringers who will be fanning out around the country getting vote counts, and then a smaller, but still large, number of vote entry people who will be taking their phone calls. So it’s quite an operation.
CH: The AP is a client-based organization; the networks rely on you, a lot of papers rely on you. What do they need, exactly?
MS: Some newspapers can buy the exit poll material, but they’re not intimately involved in the consortium, so many of them will be relying on us for the exit poll analysis as well. They have to pay a substantial amount of money to subscribe to the exit polls, and many of them are happy to rely on AP to describe the main points.
CH: And what are you expecting that the networks—which is how most people will be getting this news—will want?
MS: The networks don’t rely on us for the exit polls, because they are equal partners in the consortium. But they rely on us to quickly and accurately report the vote returns as they come in from various states. There is no official apparatus in the government that does that. Each state will eventually release a vote count, but everybody wants to know as soon as the polls close—for instance, in Florida on Tuesday night. Everyone wanted to know how many votes was McCain getting, how many votes was Romney getting. AP answers that question.
We have stringers who go to every county, even on the precinct level in some places, and as soon as votes are posted—partial returns and then later—they call in to an AP vote entry clerk, and the vote tallies are kept running in our computer system, and made available to our clients and customers to see as they’re reported. So we do as close to a real-time running count of the actual returns as is humanly possible. Now, you multiply that by 24, this Tuesday, and we’ll have hundreds of people in various data centers across the country—from Spokane to New York City, and the DUMBO center that we have near the Manhattan Bridge. And we have numerous systems experts who oversee the operations to see that there aren’t problems, and, if there are, to address them.
The networks do not try to independently collect the votes—it would be a huge, huge waste of resources and duplication. That’s the first and foremost thing that everyone relies on us for: a quick, running tally of the raw vote as it’s coming in.