Iowa caucuses called too early


“Big news” spent the past year assuring us Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination and that his challengers were surely doomed to fail. Then, on the night of the first primary contest, the Associated Press, CNN and other television networks raced to be the first to declare Trump the winner, so much so that Iowa Republicans got news alerts on their phones before they had voted. Was this detrimental to the process?

While it is a standard practice to refrain from calling an election while primaries are underway, caucuses are treated differently. Caucuses require party members to be at the precinct location at a certain hour and participate in a closed-door meeting with speeches by representatives of the different campaigns ahead of voting by secret ballot. Once the doors shut on the meeting, the AP considers the polls to have closed, and with the earliest results showing a commanding lead for Trump that matched AP’s voter survey data, it called Iowa’s caucuses for Trump within half an hour. As AP goes, other outlets follow.

Is this an ethical problem or not? The case for no is that those voters, despite inclement weather, showed up to their caucuses determined to vote and presumably did so. There was also no suspense about the winner: Trump took 51 percent of the total votes and claimed 20 of the state’s 40 delegates to the GOP national convention. The suspense was over who would claim second place. (That was Ron DeSantis, a distant runner-up with a little more than 21 percent and 9 delegates; Nikki Haley was close behind him, with 19 percent of the votes and claiming 8 delegates.)

The case for yes is that the selection process was still underway when participants were receiving messages from impatient news organizations outside the room that their vote no longer mattered. The influence of that activity on voter behavior is unpredictable and if the process of voting deserves respect, plain common sense indicates “big news” should wait.

Data is often predictive, and AP has very good data analysis. But the ability to predict an outcome before voters have even completed their participation, as I’ve been arguing all year, does not mean we should.

The pressure to be first is not more important than letting voters participate meaningfully in the selection of their leaders.