Should AP Have Called the Democratic Nomination Race the Night Before the Vote?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on March 6, 2016, in Flint, Michigan.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Updated Wednesday, June 8

"Striding into history, Hillary Clinton will become the first woman to top the presidential ticket of a major U.S. political party. ..."

Great lede. But The Associated Press moved it Monday night, the evening before voters in California, New Jersey and several other states got ready to go to the polls.

The Associated Press story wasn't based on an electoral result, of course. The report -- we at KQED joined the rest of the mainstream media universe in publishing the report -- was the product of the wire service's continual canvass of the 714 Democratic Party "superdelegates" who will cast ballots at the party's convention in July.

The AP added up all the superdelegates who had publicly endorsed Clinton or privately told the wire service of their intentions, added that total to the pledged delegates the former secretary of state has won in her long primary battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and found that she had reached the magic number to win the nomination. Thus the "done deal" language in the AP lede and the anointment of Clinton as the Democrats' presumptive nominee.

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The reaction from the Sanders campaign was instant and defiant: The AP's declaration was premature because any count that relied on superdelegates to put Clinton over the top should not be trusted. And, the Sanders partisans added, although Clinton has a substantial lead in pledged delegates -- those awarded during state primaries and caucuses -- she would not be able to reach the overall majority without the superdelegates. (The superdelegates, if you're wondering at this late date, are senior party officials and elected officeholders from around the country.)

My reaction to the AP report was, as a newsman, focused on something else.

In California, anyway, the contest between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was expected to be very close.

The first thing I thought when the AP declaration showed up on my iPhone was how that news -- Clinton's won, everyone! Nice try, Bernie! -- might affect the vote Tuesday. I also wondered whether there might have been some discussion inside the AP about releasing the result of its latest count with the biggest state in the nation getting ready to vote in a matter of hours.

I wasn't the only one asking the question. In fact, a few hours before the AP announcement, Poynter Institute columnist Bill Mitchell took issue with the notion that media organizations could name a nominee based on Tuesday's primaries. Mitchell's argument in a nutshell:

If all goes as expected and Hillary Clinton wins even close to a majority of the 126 delegates up for grabs, journalists will make a choice, more or less, between two possible headlines:

  • Clinton Clinches Nomination
  • Clinton Wins New Jersey

There’s no question that headline No. 1 makes the bigger splash. There’s also no question, at least in my mind, that journalists should go with something closer to headline No. 2.

The argument for No. 1 goes like this: With 2,383 delegates needed for the nomination, New Jersey’s delegates will likely put Clinton over the top as long as you count the 548 superdelegates who have committed to support her.

My argument for headline No. 2 (or something more nuanced shy of No. 1) goes like this: Since those 548 superdelegates won’t actually cast their votes until the convention in July, it’s premature for journalists to act as if they have, in fact, already voted.

It's fair to say that after the AP delivered its reading of the news, it got an earful. Widespread fury from the Sanders camp. A show of dismay from the Clinton camp, which expressed worries about supporters not turning out to vote in California. And questions about journalistic ethics from within and without the profession. For instance, this from a New York Daily News reporter:

Now, here's what the AP had to say when I contacted the news service Tuesday before I went out to vote. I boiled my question down to one issue only: Was there any internal discussion at The Associated Press about the timing of the announcement, coming as it did the day before several primaries?

"I can answer by saying we went with the news when we determined after months of ongoing, careful reporting that Hillary Clinton had indeed reached the required number of delegates for the nomination," Paul Colford, an AP vice president and its director of media relations, wrote in an email. "That conclusion was reached Monday evening. AP does not withhold news."

Colford ended by asking "Would KQED have held up such a story?"

Kathleen Carroll, AP's executive editor, explained AP's process for counting the delegates.

"Why did we report that Hillary Clinton had reached the number Monday night?" she wrote in an emailed response. "Because that is when the number of pledged delegates and the number of firmly committed super delegates reached 2,383, the required number. That was news and we reported it. With a lot of language that explained how we got there, that super delegates can change their minds and that none of those who pledged themselves to Clinton has done so in the many months that we have been talking with them."

And as to the question of a discussion about releasing its report with millions of people about to go to the polls, Carroll added, "We did not discuss whether we should sit on the news we had. We reported it."

In a sense, this is an issue that arises in every election, when news organizations receive early exit poll data that may point to the outcome of a race well before the polls close. It's a matter of convention at this point that media outlets keep that information to themselves until the votes are cast.

One difference: The "news" that Carroll and Colford refer to was the private, proprietary product of AP's work and isn't really open to public scrutiny. The wire service says that it discovered new superdelegate commitments on Monday that put Clinton over the top; the world is taking its word for it.

So, was this situation akin to the early release of an exit poll? Might the outcome of the race have been affected by an early call that the Democratic presidential nomination race was over?

Those questions are worth a conversation, anyway. And that would be my answer to Mr. Colford's question about whether KQED would have held up the story. Maybe, maybe not. But I'd expect a good, tough conversation before making the call.

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This story was updated to note the fact KQED published a report on the AP delegate count on Monday, June 6.

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