Just after 7:30 Monday evening in Iowa, many Republicans were settling in at their caucus locations to listen to candidate nomination speeches before voting when their phones started buzzing with news alerts: former president Donald Trump had already won.
Barely a half hour into the official start of the Iowa caucuses and with only a few hundred votes reported, multiple TV networks and the Associated Press had independently come to the exact same conclusion. The result wasn’t a shock—Trump had held dominant leads in polls for months—but the timing seemed to catch some TV anchors off-guard.
“This is the earliest I can remember ever calling such a thing,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said, right after announcing Trump’s victory.
Soon, TV screens lit up with a surreal display: a split screen of studio hosts talking about a race that was already over, paired with live shots of Iowans still waiting to cast their votes.
Once again, on a big election night, the media themselves had become a story—and fodder for criticism.
“They even called the election before everyone had the chance to vote,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis complained during his election night speech, continuing his ongoing effort to undermine Republicans’ trust in nonpartisan news as he sought to spin his distant-second-place finish. His spokesman went even further, accusing the media of “election interference” and saying they were “in the tank for Trump.”
But the criticism didn’t just come from the right.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama and current Pod Save America host, tweeted that the early calls were “a self-defeating move at a time of massive distrust in the media and electoral system.”
“Just wait an hour until people have voted,” he said. “You don’t get a Pulitzer for being first to tell people something everyone knows is going to happen.”
In almost every other election, no one will call a race until the polls are closed, even when the result is exceedingly obvious. That’s true in heavily blue or red states—as well as those where decision desks can tell where an election is going but some precincts remain open, as in states with multiple time zones and poll closing times.
But Iowa’s caucuses are a weird unicorn, because the atomized, volunteer-run process at the state’s 1,600-plus precincts means there’s no way of knowing in real time when everyone is actually done voting.
I spoke with Joe Lenski, the executive vice president for the nonpartisan pollster Edison Research, which conducted the entrance poll that many of the TV networks—including CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC—relied on to make their calls. He was on a conference call with all four networks on Monday night, and agreed to walk me through the decision-making process.
The entrance poll, Lenski explained, involved people on the ground in randomly selected caucus sites throughout the state interviewing people as they walked in. By the time doors closed, at 7pm, Edison had already conducted more than a thousand randomly selected interviews—a large-enough sample to give a good sense of the electorate’s preferences.
Because of the unique nature of Iowa’s caucuses, Lenski said, the question of when a call is too early is a “gray area”—one that simply doesn’t exist in most other races. (He said that Nevada’s Republican Party has addressed this problem for its upcoming caucuses by giving a firm time of 7:30pm PST for voting to wrap up.)
“We took over thirty minutes from when the doors closed to process this data to the point where we were convinced of the accuracy of the data enough to make the call,” he said, pointing out that the networks used not just the Iowa entrance poll but early voting returns to make the call.
Once they felt certain of the result, he argued, they had no choice but to make it known.
“If we withheld that information, we would be open to the argument on the other side of withholding information from the public,” Lenski said. “If we didn’t call it till 7:45 or 8 o’clock, what’s to stop the Trump campaign from saying, ‘See, there’s the media, not reporting the story of us winning’?”
A CNN source said that the entrance poll data gave the network enough information that it could have projected the race result as of 7pm, when voters were required to be physically present at the caucus sites in order to cast their ballots. The networks have done that in the past—when the caucuses were virtually uncontested. This year, they all opted to wait a half hour, until the Iowa GOP had begun reporting actual vote results, to make the call, partly to be able to spot-check that the entrance poll was accurate.
Another network election night veteran who is well versed in how these calls are made concurred with Lenski—and said that there’s a simple solution for future caucuses.
“We can’t be hostage to the media narrative. I mean, we have to make the calls when we’re confident that it’s time to make a call, not because it fits into a narrative,” they told me. “Had the Iowa GOP been concerned about results getting back to people in caucuses where the voting hadn’t concluded, it could have simply withheld the release of those real caucus precinct reports until 9pm [EST].”
The whole episode was “disappointing” to Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann. He told me that the party would likely have to reconsider its decision to release precinct results in real time as they’re tallied up in the future, or find another way to keep media organizations from making a call until everyone has voted.
“You can better believe that this will be a main topic” of discussion, Kaufmann said. “We’re probably either going to insist that there be some kind of unspoken respect for the caucus, or we will have to take a look at when we release results. We can still have a transparent process, but it won’t be in real time.”
He added that the explanations for the early call from folks like Lenski don’t “respect the spirit of the caucus.”
“What I’m hearing in these excuses is, ‘We don’t give a damn, we’re going to be the first to report,’ and that’s offensive to me,” Kaufmann said. “If the spirit of competition is going to trump respect for our caucus, then we’re going to make it difficult for them to ever do this again, in terms of calling it early. And that would be a shame.”
But what Kaufmann meant as a warning might be music to the ears of the networks, which want to be first in accurately calling an election—but don’t want to become the story.
Other notable stories:
- In yesterday’s newsletter, we noted that the union representing staffers at the LA Times was warning of “major” impending layoffs at the paper, which already cut more than seventy positions last year, after bosses reportedly asked the union to gut protections against layoffs in its contract in exchange for an offer of buyout packages. Yesterday, management at the LA Times confirmed that layoffs are anticipated; bosses didn’t say how many positions would be cut, but the paper’s Meg James reports that they plan to lay off at least a hundred people. In response, unionized staffers will walk off the job today—“the newsroom’s first union-organized work stoppage in the paper’s 142-year history,” per James.
- Last summer, we wrote about the “strange, aggressive press strategy” of Ron DeSantis—the Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate, who talked freely to conservative outlets while rhetorically bashing and otherwise shunning major national news organizations—as well as his early efforts to pivot to more mainstream venues as his campaign flailed. Yesterday, DeSantis suggested in an interview with the radio host Hugh Hewitt that he regrets his early media avoidance. “I should have just been blanketing,” DeSantis said. “I should have gone on all the corporate shows. I should have gone on everything.”
- Also yesterday, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the PRESS Act, a bipartisan push to implement a federal “shield law” protecting journalists against surveillance and attempts to force them to reveal confidential sources. All but one state and Washington, DC, already have shield laws on the books, but efforts to implement a federal equivalent have repeatedly failed. Seth Stern, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, hailed the House for passing the bill, and called on the Senate to “finish the job” by sending it up to President Biden.
- Last week, gunmen in Ecuador, where gang-related violence has spiraled of late, burst into a news studio in the city of Guayaquil and held staff hostage while the scene was broadcast live on air. Now César Suárez, the public prosecutor who was leading the investigation into the incident and had interviewed the alleged perpetrators, has been assassinated in the same city. Police arrested two gang members in the attack but said their motives remain under investigation.
- And for The Atlantic, Kurt Andersen read the social-media posts of Bill Ackman—a billionaire who helped get the president of Harvard fired, then saw plagiarism allegations rebound on his wife, and has posted at length through it all—and declared them to be “like a novella, an exquisite piece of satirical fiction in digital epistolary form.” The whole piece is worth your time.