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What Happens if It's Too Close to Call?

In this first-in-the-nation exercise in a unique form of democracy, the earliest sense of how the caucus will wind up should come trickling in around 8:30 p.m. EST, in the form of entrance polls.

According to The Post's Pollster Jon Cohen, entrance polls are all like the exit polls most people are used to seeing on a traditional election night. The Iowa caucus entrance poll surveys approximately 1,200 caucus-goers in each party on their way in to a random sample of precincts.

This all happens later in the day than a traditional primary, meaning that this year, when the Democrats are tripping to this Iowa finish (or starting line) roughly in a three-way tie, the results could be murky and emerge very late in the evening.

So what happens if it's too close to call?

Or, in a more exciting formulation, what happens if the results shift around so dramatically that it might be necessary to tear up one edition of the paper and start again?

Here's one take on it from the man who would actually make a "stop the presses" call come deadlocked deadline time.

Tonight won't be as difficult as some voting days because, after all, as The Post's Executive Editor Len Downie points out, "we're not electing a president."

"The GOP will go first, and it should be clear cut. The Democratic side is a more complicated story. But the job of the reporters will be to interpret the order of finish," he says.

Downie points to the wisdom in David Broder's column today, that one of the most important aspects of today's caucus is how it positions the candidates for New Hampshire.

And there's one more contingency to add to the drama: the Internet.

"The further back you go, before the Internet, there were more editions. It was just a matter of going from one edition to another," Downie says. So there weren't presses to stop, just editions to update. Tonight, Downie and others will be conferring over the right call to make for both the Web and the three separate editions of the print newspaper.

For down-to-the-wire election night memories, the clearest -- and most well-documented -- was the very early morning calls made on Nov. 8, 2000 the night George W. Bush seemed to beat Al Gore in Florida.

(One useful reference on this -- and one Downie consulted to refresh his memory -- is The Post's "Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election.")

As Downie remembers the scene that night, between 1 and 2 a.m.:

"At some point the networks called it for Bush. And Gore was going to concede, we were aware of that. Fox had projected Bush as the winner and then other networks followed. And it seemed logical to us too, for the same reason the networks were calling it. Dan Balz was writing various contingency versions. And we decided to go with the networks' call. But Steve Coll, then the managing editor, kept playing the numbers and he calculated it was still too close to call. By that time, the AP had refused to call. So particularly because of Steve's calculation, it didn't feel right."

Then, in a not-quite out of the movies moment, Downie made the call that it was, in fact, too close.

"We did have the plates ready to go, so I stopped the plates. I never actually stopped the presses, but I did ask them to stop the plates."

--Rachel Dry

By Washington Post editors  |  January 3, 2008; 8:25 PM ET
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