For readers following the Iowa caucus live, the rush to declare Donald Trump the winner may have caught them off guard. It certainly seemed fast to me, although it also produced the exact result most of us expected anyway.
Ron DeSantis and the Iowa Republican Party didn’t appreciate the quick call, however. GOP chair Jeff Kaufman blasted the Associated Press and the TV nets, including Fox News, for barely waiting a half-hour to call the race — before some caucuses even got to vote:
“Media outlets calling the results of the 2024 first-in-the-nation caucus less than half an hour after precinct caucuses had been called to order — before the overwhelming majority of Iowans had even cast their ballot — was highly disappointing and concerning,” Kaufmann said in a statement. “One of the key differences between the Iowa Caucus and a standard primary election is that Iowans have the chance to listen to presidential candidates or their surrogates and deliberate to make an informed decision. “There was no need to rush one of the most transparent, grassroots democratic processes in the country.”
DeSantis went even further in his criticism, calling it “election interference”:
“It is absolutely outrageous that the media would participate in election interference by calling the race before tens of thousands of Iowans even had a chance to vote,” the campaign’s communications director, Andrew Romeo, said in a statement. “The media is in the tank for Trump, and this is the most egregious example yet.”
DeSantis supporter and Iowa conservative Steve Deace echoed that criticism.
“People are telling me phones got Fox News alerts Trump won before they even voted,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Just criminal levels of voter suppression. That network is a freaking cancer. With ‘friends’ like Fox, who needs CNN?”
Did they need to call the race as early as they did? Probably not, but let’s be honest — it probably didn’t change the outcomes at all. This could have been a legit complaint if either DeSantis or Nikki Haley came within ten points of Trump … but they didn’t. Trump beat DeSantis by almost thirty points, and DeSantis finished ahead of Haley by two points. That outcome matches the picture painted by every pollster ahead of the caucuses, including the Des Moines Register poll, which only got the runners-up in the wrong order. They and everyone else got the winner right as well as the scale of the victory.
So how did the networks make the early call and get it right? For one thing, caucuses are different than primaries. The polls don’t “remain open” while voting takes place; Iowa caucuses require voters to show up by 7 pm CT and the doors are shut at that time to get a solid quorum count. The first call by the AP came at 7:31, when caucusers were already locked into place, and after a handful of caucuses had already begun reporting results. The early calls did not deter anyone from coming to the caucuses; those voting were already there, and anyone not there by 7:30 wasn’t going to get to vote anyway.
Did that impact the choices made by caucus-goers already inside the meetings? Perhaps that argument could be made, but it seems unlikely. The whole point of attending the caucus is to hear from campaign surrogates and put them to the test. If a media call on the election had that much sway over their voting decisions, wouldn’t all of the polls showing Trump as inevitable be a more likely influence on their vote — rather than a text alert 30 minutes into the process? If this had any impact at all in that direction, it had to be marginal — and this was not a marginal outcome.
Plus, as the New York Times reports, media outlets had access to “entrance poll” data, along with the lengthy list of Iowa polls that preceded the event:
For its part, The A.P. said that it had analyzed early results from eight Iowa counties that were received within the first half-hour after caucusing began, which showed that Mr. Trump had received “far more than half of the total votes counted.” That data gelled with The A.P.’s proprietary voter survey, which the outlet said “showed Trump with an insurmountable lead” among men and women, and across every age group and geographic region of Iowa. (The New York Times relied upon The A.P.’s race call in reporting its own results.)
CNN actually beat The A.P. by one minute in projecting Mr. Trump as the night’s winner. The network’s projection relied in part on a so-called entrance poll conducted by Edison Research on behalf of several major television networks. On air, Jake Tapper told viewers that Mr. Trump’s expected victory was “based on his overwhelming lead in our entrance poll of Iowa caucusgoers and some initial votes that are coming in.”
One CNN executive said that the network had collected enough data to announce a race call at 7 p.m. Central, the official caucus start time, but that the network had chosen to hold off until it believed all voters were required to be inside their caucus sites.
This was getting explained in real time too. I knew this even though most of my attention was on the Bucs-Eagles playoff game, which also could have been called early. (*rimshot*) Caucus entrance polls have been widely used for many cycles to help media outlets analyze reported results from non-primary contests and determine the direction of a race in real time, just as happened last night. Nothing about this was new or novel last night, and the massive weight of Trump’s support made an early call easy.
That’s not to say that early calls are either wise or necessary. Why not wait for the process to finish and then analyze the full results? In large part, media outlets do this for competitive reasons, but also because their consumers demand it. They tune in and click onto such analyses, and understandably so when done well and supported by evidence. In fact, the question is actually inverted, especially in this case. It was patently obvious in the data that Trump would have a landslide victory, so why not report it, especially since the doors were locked and a call wouldn’t impact turnout in any way?
Anyway, the Iowa caucuses are over, and the next two contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina are primaries. The networks will wait to make calls based on exit polling until precincts close, but expect them to compete for the first correct calls in those contests too.