The Democratic National Convention, 2008. Photo by Kelly DeLay.
I covered government and politics for The Associated Press during the eight years after my college graduation, including several election nights.
“Calling” an election was a responsibility entrusted to the most seasoned journalists on the staff. They approached it with care and conservative prudence. Nobody ever called an election that I covered based on pre-election polls, and exit polling was only used as a guide to help recognize trends. To call an election, AP analysts looked at actual returns.
This is not to say it was necessary for someone to make it mathematically impossible for a candidate to win before declaring their opponent the victor. But the opponent’s win had to be a practical impossibility. For example, if a candidate’s opponent had been polling at 55 percent of votes in the inner cities and the results reached the point where he or she would need to pull 80 percent of the uncounted votes in those districts to win, the race should have been called at that point. The opponent simply would not get that 80 percent.
Donald Trump was declared the presumptive presidential nominee on the Republican side when, as a practical matter, his opponents could no longer win enough pledged delegates to stop him from leading the ticket. The AP really did not have to call that race for Trump at all – Ted Cruz and John Kasich effectively did it when they dropped out of the race following the Indiana primary on May 3.
But the AP broke from its historical practice this week when it declared Hillary Clinton the winner in the race for the Democratic nomination Monday night, on the eve of primary voting and caucuses in California, New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico, and North and South Dakota. That call was based on interviews the AP has conducted periodically with Democratic superdelegates, who are unbound and free to vote for any candidate at the party convention in Philadelphia this July.
Their call, according to the AP, was based on the number of delegates who “unequivocally” told the news agency that they intend to vote for Clinton at the convention. In other words, it was based on a pre-election survey of a group of voters who are free to change their minds.
The AP has put its credibility on the line based on these unequivocal statements. Its coverage discussed Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the past tense, despite the fact that Sanders has not conceded and showed no immediate signs of doing so. In fact, the AP’s coverage prompted his campaign to condemn the “rush to judgment” that automatically counted formally uncommitted superdelegates. The AP, in order to call the Democratic primary, has run the risk of being remembered for all the wrong reasons if enough of the superdelegates exercise their right to change their minds.
Who are the superdelegates, then, and how much faith do their unequivocal statements warrant? They are, for the most part, Democratic elected officials and party insiders, many of them with longstanding connections to the Clinton family. In other words, they’re politicians.
In my era, we did not take unequivocal statements from politicians at face value. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon taught us better. I see no reason why our longstanding philosophy would have become invalid in the meantime. President Obama unequivocally told us that if we liked our health plans, we could keep them. Hillary Clinton unequivocally supported that “gold standard” of trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, until she changed her mind. Another Clinton once unequivocally assured the nation that he “did not have sex with that woman.”
The timing of Monday’s call is also interesting. I expect stories will eventually emerge of the Clinton camp pushing hard behind the scenes to get enough superdelegates to tell the AP that they were in her corner before yesterday’s primaries in order to render the results of that voting moot. Clinton’s campaign may have especially wanted to soften a potential blow in California, which represented a large cache of committed delegates that Clinton was in real danger of losing as I wrote this column.
One could guess that a story declaring the race over might sap the enthusiasm of enough Sanders’ supporters to hand an easier victory to Clinton. I wonder, though, whether it might have had the opposite effect, making Sanders’ enthusiastic backers even more determined to turn out at the polls while encouraging Clinton’s more dutiful electorate to take the day off. As I wrote yesterday, Sanders has no reason to back off now, the AP’s story notwithstanding.
I would have no quarrel with any news story that called Clinton the “likely” Democratic nominee at this point, because it certainly seems more likely than not that these superdelegates will stay planted firmly in her pocket. But I would not say so unequivocally.