The Associated Press faced fierce backlash this week for declaring Hillary Clinton the winner of the Democratic primary on Monday night, before California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C. had voted. Though Clinton had not yet won the number of pledged delegates needed to secure the nomination, the AP surveyed superdelegates — elected officials and party elites who can back whomever they choose — and found that Clinton had enough commitments to win.
The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called the announcement “appalling,” arguing that superdelegates should not be counted because they can change their minds at or before the party convention in July. The campaign also charged that the announcement would discourage voters in the remaining states.
“What’s the point of suppressing voter turnout in six states across the country to have a quick news hit that could easily have been done tonight?” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver asked CNN. “They are suppressing the vote in the most vile, vicious way I’ve seen establishment media do.”
Clinton’s campaign was not pleased either. Just after the news broke, Clinton quickly tweeted at her more than six million followers that the race was not yet over and urged them to vote.
Her celebrity surrogates told crowds of voters not to let the news that the primary was over keep them from the polls.
The AP’s Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll bristled at the accusations, saying that their survey of superdelegates was “painstaking” and only counted firm commitments. “That is news, and reporting the news is what we do,” she said. “Nothing in that discourages or prevents voters in six states from exercising their right to go to the polls today and cast their ballots.”
It’s impossible to know what turnout would have been had the AP not called the race, triggering a wave of reports on TV and online that Clinton had won the race.
But there is some indication of depressed voter turnout.
Poll analyst Nate Silver noted Tuesday night that voter turnout in New Jersey and South Dakota was significantly lower than in the states’ last competitive Democratic primary in 2008. Though turnout across the country has been slightly lower than President Obama’s history 2008 win, these numbers show a more drastic decline.
Yet in Montana, which consistently has one of the highest turnout rates in the nation, Tuesday night’s turnout was just one point behind the rate in 2008.
When you have a call from an authoritative source like the AP, it can make people feel like it doesn’t matter.
California, by far the largest and most diverse of the final primary states, is harder to gauge.
Polling experts estimated that eight million voters would participate in the primary — roughly 32 percent of eligible voters.
As of Wednesday afternoon, California’s turnout was only 24 percent. Though an unknown number of mail-in ballots remain uncounted, and the final results could take days to verify, it will likely only move that rate up a couple percentage points. In comparison, presidential primary turnout was a whopping 55.8 percent in 2008.
Mindy Romero, the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, told ThinkProgress that she was “frustrated” by the AP’s decision and believes it could have been a factor in some people’s decision to stay home on Election Day.
“All of us were so hoping we would see high turnout,” she said. “I think [the AP announcement] could have hurt either side, but it looks like it hurt Sanders’ side more. He had a lot of young supporters, and they tend to vote less often and are less familiar with the rules. It’s already a big step for them to come out to vote. So when you have a call from an authoritative source like the AP, it can make people feel like it doesn’t matter.”
Romero emphasized that the turnout rates reported Wednesday were preliminary, and that all of the states’ mail-in ballots will be counted in the coming days. She also noted that it may be impossible to definitively say how much the announcement impacted turnout.
At least five million voters had already mailed in their ballots before the AP’s announcement.
But there is a historical precedent, including in California, for Romero’s concerns.
In 1980 and 1984, the main TV networks called the race for Ronald Reagan several hours before west coast polls had closed. By some estimates, California turnout was driven down two percent by the news.
Members of Congress blasted CBS, NBC, and ABC for calling the race early, saying the outlets had “again put the whims of a handful of network news executives above the rights of millions of American voters.”