Top campaign aides to President Carter and Edward M. Kennedy took a look back at Sunday's Maine caucuses and found something they could agree on: Both sides said CBS News was "irresponsible" to predict a big Carter win hours before the caucuses were over.
Robert Strauss, Carter's campaign manager, and Paul Kirk, Kennedy's chief political adviser, said yesterday that a CBS News bulletin, broadcast Sunday afternoon, undermined their efforts to turn out supporters to evening caucuses.
CBS interrupted a tennis broadcast at 4:37 p.m. Sunday -- when about a third of the town caucuses had not yet begun -- to announce that President Carter is the winner."
"CBS News estimates that when the caucuses are completed, President Carter will have won just over half of [the Maine] delegates," the report said. "Second will be Senator Kennedy with just over a third. . . . We repeat, President Carter is the winner."
As it turned out, CBS estimated the final standings right, but its projections of delegate figures were wrong. Late yesterday, with about 90 percent of the town caucuses reporting, Carter had 45 percent of the delegates and Kennedy 39 percent.
CBS reported its estimate on radio broadcasts later Sunday afternoon. By the time its evening television News program was broadcast in Maine at 6 p.m., the network had updated its estimates and said Carter would win by about 10 percentage points.
What angered the Carter and Kennedy people was not so much the faulty projection of delegate totals, but the fact that CBS offered any projection at all when a considerable portion of the electorate had yet to vote.
"It's absolutely irresponsible," said the Kennedy campaign's Kirk. "You have over a third of these people getting ready to go out and vote and CBS told them it was all over -- there was no point in voting because Carter was going to win big."
Noting that NBC had predicted the results of last month's Iowa caucuses "a few minutes" before CBS did, Leiser said of the Maine projection: "Why did we put it on? Why does The Washington Post try to beat The New York Times? . . . We're in competitive situation."
In fact, though, there was no competitive pressure Sunday. Both ABC and NBC decided not to try to project results in Maine, saying that the circumstances were too unusual -- Maine had never before held statewide caucuses on the same day -- to permit accurate estimates.
The CBS projection was made by the network's polling and predicting expert, Warren Mitofsky, who has a reputation in the polling community as a particularly cautious estimator. Mitofsky's most famous achievement, until his Maine prediction Sunday, was in the Wisconsin primary in 1976, when CBS refused to project a result after other news organizations had announced that Morris Udall was the winner. In the end, Udall lost narrowly to Carter.
The projection of winners while voting is still under way has been a subject of controversy among pollsters for years.
Some students of polling and politics say early projections trigger a "Lethargy factor" that leads people who have not yet voted to say "What's the use?" and stay home. But others say early polls have no such effect.
The Canadian government was sufficiently concerned to establish a federal statute prohibiting the broadcast of early results or pollsters' projections before the polls close. Thus, election results from eastern provinces of Canada cannot be reported in the west until three hours later.
Leiser, the CBS News executive, yesterday professed no concern about the impact of his network's estimate in Maine.
"Early in, in 1960 or so, when [vote projections] were a new thing, we spent a lot of time and anguish worrying about that," Lesier said. "But we reached the conclusion that if we had the information we should go with it." w
Leiser said his network had confidence in Mitofsky's work and would continue to estimate election results on the basis of early returns. "We feel we're doing the right thing," he said.