NEW YORK — MSNBC host Keith Olbermann told viewers Monday that relying on an entrance poll to predict the outcome of the complicated Iowa caucuses was "slightly more dangerous than juggling hand grenades in the dark."
Still, MSNBC and the other news networks began airing the results of their commissioned poll on the caucuses as soon as they were available at 5 p.m. Pacific time, half an hour after the 1,900-plus meetings opened.
As it turned out, the poll -- performed by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for a national consortium of networks and Associated Press -- correctly predicted the final order the candidates finished in.
Accurate election projections became a particular preoccupation for the networks and other news organizations following the 2000 presidential election, when polling failed and television anchors prematurely called the race.
"The system delivered what we expected, and we are pleased with how it worked tonight," said an ABC News spokeswoman.
Accompanied by plenty of disclaimers that the outcome could change, Fox News Channel and CNN reported Sen. John F. Kerry's apparent lead at 5 p.m., as soon as the caucus results began coming in. The other networks followed, with ABC waiting until about 5:40.
Three sets of initial entrance poll numbers reflected the same outcome, and they backed up weekend polling by other organizations, so Fox felt comfortable airing the results immediately, with some "qualifying language," said Marty Ryan, the network's executive producer of political programming.
While CNN's Wolf Blitzer cautioned that the early ranking "doesn't mean it is going to turn out like this by any means," his colleague Judy Woodruff jumped in to say that, if true, "this Democratic race for president is literally turned upside down."
The news organizations didn't have to wait long for actual results from the Iowa Democratic Party, and by about 6:30 p.m., television and radio were widely reporting their projections of a Kerry win.