NEW YORK — The hunt for the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate isn't the only anticipated process finally getting underway today with the Iowa caucuses. For the broadcast and cable news networks, it's also the first full-fledged "live" test of a new polling and vote-count operation that they hope will save them from the embarrassment of election night 2000.
Voter News Service, the polling consortium that failed to provide accurate data of how people voted in 2000 and caused the networks to prematurely declare George W. Bush the winner, was disbanded and replaced by the National Elections Pool.
NEP -- a consortium of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News and Associated Press -- has been hired to conduct an entrance poll as caucus-goers arrive, the first of several tests for the new system during the primary season.
In addition to providing voter information on the races, the caucus and primary polls will offer a chance to work out bugs in the system prior to November's general election. Other polls will be taken next week in New Hampshire and on Feb. 3 and March 2, when multiple states hold caucuses and primaries.
Parts of the new system were tested during the recent gubernatorial elections in California, Kentucky and Mississippi, but Iowa "is the big leagues," said Tom Hannon, CNN's political director. "The testing has been good so far, but there's nothing like the real thing."
The 2000 election proved embarrassing for network officials, who testified before a congressional committee on what went wrong and pledged to remedy the problem. But the repaired system failed again during the 2002 midterm election, when Voter News Service couldn't generate accurate data.
The debacles aside, exit and entrance polls have become an increasing source of contention with candidates and parties. The data, which are supposed to be closely guarded until polls close, have been leaked to Internet sites during the day, potentially affecting voter turnout.
During the California gubernatorial recall election in October, many cable news reports hinted explicitly to viewers about how the trends were going well before polls closed.
Last week, the Iowa Democratic Party wrote to the NEP members, asking them not to project Iowa winners and losers until a half an hour into the caucuses, which start at 6:30 p.m. But CNN's Hannon said the entrance poll was not going to supply a projected winner to its members, given the complexity of how the caucuses work. "It would be foolhardy to use it to project state delegate equivalents," he said.
CNN will use the poll, he said, to talk to viewers in an informed way about what is on the minds of voters, not to project a winner.
Dan Merkle, ABC News' Decision Desk director, said the network might use the data to make a "carefully worded" characterization of what the entrance polls showed.
Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN all plan full evening coverage of the Iowa caucuses.