This year, the two risk factors have returned with a vengeance. The field is bigger than in 1988, and the race is closer. The latest Iowa polls have the top four candidates—Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards—within the margin of error. The NES, which tried to count the raw vote in 1988, is gone. Here's the system the media have created to replace the NES: Nothing. Plenty of reporters will attend caucuses, but nobody is systematically reporting the raw vote, or even the realigned vote. Some folks at the TV networks seem to think the Associated Press is reporting the raw vote. That's news to the AP.
If the "winner" anointed by the media is determined by the delegate count rather than the raw count, who's likely to get screwed? Do the math. Edwards is hovering just above 15 percent in most statewide surveys. That means that in a lot of precincts, his supporters are likely to fall just below the viability threshold and be disbanded, earning zero delegates. Dean could be shortchanged by the turnout-based allotment of delegates to each precinct. If, as advertised, Dean brings in people who had previously given up on voting, the low turnout caused by their absence from the last election in that precinct will diminish the number of delegates they can earn in this election, no matter how many of them show up.
The TV networks will have one way to estimate the raw vote: entrance polls. As Democrats enter the caucuses, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International will ask them, among other things, whom they plan to vote for. An official at one network said her organization would use the entrance polls to help project the winner. That's exactly what the entrance polls shouldn't be used for, according to Warren Mitofsky, one of the executives who's supervising them. But absent a raw vote count, it would be surprising if network analysts responsible for projecting the winner didn't look at the entrance polls, if only to see whether they matched the delegate count.
Why are the people who conduct the entrance polls nervous about using them to project winners? Look at what happened in Florida in 2000. Networks initially called the state for Gore based largely on exit polls. As the returns came in, the networks realized that the exit polls were off. Then came more returns, and a half-baked official recount, and a court fight, and a contested inauguration, and finally a too-late unofficial media recount that showed Bush winning under some rules and Gore winning under others. Everyone could argue about which ballots should count. But at least there were ballots to look at.
In Iowa, there will be no ballots.