Nets took Missouri break

Delayed call despite AP projection

NEW YORK -- The networks, still wary after the Election Night debacle in 2000, waited until things became clearer before calling the Missouri Democratic race even after the Associated Press incorrectly projected Hillary Clinton the winner.

One of Super Tuesday's biggest questions near night's end was who would win in Missouri, which three hours after the polls closed still was too close to call. The AP, to which all the networks subscribe, projected for Clinton at 11:03 p.m. EST based on actual vote counts. AP was forced to retract 90 minutes later when the results from St. Louis moved the lead from Clinton to Barack Obama.

But that always was on the minds of the network decision desks, which saw something not quite solid about the results and waited. Kathy Frankovic, CBS News' director of surveys, was surprised when she saw the AP alert.

"We looked at (the indicators) and said, 'They did?' " Frankovic said, referring to the AP. "It looked too iffy, too close."

Clinton technically was ahead in Missouri by a 10% margin. But Frankovic and her counterparts at other networks said Wednesday that no results from St. Louis meant that a potential Obama stronghold had yet to be heard from. Exit polls also were judged unreliable because of the strong storms that were hitting the region on Election Day.

"In a close race like this, the key is to wait for more data to confirm what you're seeing," said Dan Merkle, director of ABC News' decision desk. "If it could go the other way, you definitely don't do it. In our minds, there was no question to wait."

Reuters, which doesn't have its own decision desk, had been monitoring what other outlets were calling. At 11:13 p.m., after seeing a local CBS affiliate report, Reuters issued an alert that incorrectly reported that the network had called Missouri for Clinton. Reuters eventually corrected it and, when projected Obama had in fact won, reported the Missouri results at 12:38 a.m. EST Wednesday.

On the other hand, the California Democratic race wasn't as close as it had been believed and that some exit polls suggested. Merkle said that it was important to wait for actual vote totals in that case.

Meanwhile, CNN was criticized in some quarters for waiting to declare a winner for some races. That was in evidence in Massachusetts, New Jersey and elsewhere when CNN didn't declare a winner until long after its rivals. But CNN political director Sam Feist said that being cautious is not a bad thing.

"I consider it to be a badge of honor. It's my job," he said. "I'm in no rush to project the winner of a race. No one is helped by racing to project the winner. We project the winner when we're sure."

Besides, Feist said Wednesday, the touch screens that show county-by-county results provides more detail to viewers, and CNN certainly didn't withhold information but instead mentioned the way it was trending. On Tuesday night, Feist told The Hollywood Reporter that network was holding off on calling the Massachusetts race because results from Boston weren't in yet.