Reality can be slow, especially on election night, so the media have devised a way to get around it.
Instead of waiting for actual votes to be counted on the night of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, a consortium of the major TV networks and The Associated Press will conduct an entrance poll to measure how people say they will vote.
Those results will be broadcast long before the official vote is announced and, in some cases, before the voting is finished.
At each of 40 Democratic and 40 Republican precincts (out of a total of 3,562) interviewers will poll anybody they can grab before the voters go in and vote.
The entrance poll has a greater chance of reflecting the official results on the Republican side than on the Democratic side.
That's because Republican caucus voting is pretty straightforward in Iowa: A voter goes into the caucus site, listens to some speeches and then writes a name on a ballot. At the end of the evening, whichever candidate gets the most votes wins.
On the Democratic side, however, entrance polling is what we columnists like to describe as "fraught with peril."
That's because Democratic voting in the Iowa caucus is not straightforward. There is an "alignment" where voters go to different spots in the room to indicate whom they wish to vote for, and, if a candidate does not get 15 percent of those present, there is "realignment," with those voters going to other candidates.
But the entrance poll will not measure the effect of the realignment. It will measure only a voter's first preference.
Further, the official Democratic results do not measure actual votes cast, but the percentage of delegates a candidate wins to the state convention, which is the result of a complicated formula. In other words, the entrance poll and the official results are not measuring the same thing.
In 2004, the entrance poll had the Democratic candidates in the same order of finish as the official results: John Kerry first, John Edwards second and Howard Dean third.
But what happens if the entrance poll results differ from the official tally this time? Won't this lead to confusion and accusations of media manipulation and fraud?
In a simple word: Yes.
"I don't know why we are doing it," one person involved in the entrance polling told me. "Why are we trying to do something no matter how good it is that might be incorrect?"
Two reasons come to mind: First, the media are impatient and don't want to wait for the slow process of actual vote counting, and second, the entrance poll can produce nifty information.
Though the actual questionnaire that will be handed to voters is a secret, Kathy Frankovic, the CBS News director of surveys, told me it would probably include 12 to15 multiple choice questions asking such things as when the voters decided on whom to support, how they feel about the Iraq war, whether they are in a labor union, their political philosophy (i.e., liberal, conservative, etc.), and age, income and level of education.
Armed with this information, a network analyst can say: "Obama got 53 percent of the anti-war vote, while Clinton got 47 percent of the labor vote and Edwards got 36 percent of those who made up their minds in the last two weeks."
Frankovic says that while the entrance poll can be "a very good indicator of the first choice of people who vote in the caucuses," the results "are not going to be predictive of the final outcome after the realignment."
Sheldon Gawiser, director of elections for NBC, says he worries that the entrance poll results will differ from the official results, but he agrees that the real value is the information the poll provides.
"The poll is for the purposes of explaining the story of what really happened beyond who won and who lost," he says.
Some networks may, indeed, be cautious when broadcasting the horse race results, saying they are not truly predictive, especially on the Democratic side. But each network and The Associated Press are free to announce the outcome any way they see fit.
A network could even claim the entrance poll results are more "real" than the official outcome. A network could say: "Here is who Iowa Democrats really wanted for president and not what the screwy voting rules produced."
Which is one reason the Iowa Democratic Party is less than overjoyed about the entrance poll.
"I don't like it, but the fact is they are going to do it, regardless of what we want," says Norm Sterzenbach, political director of the party. "There is nothing we can do."
But, he adds, "The only results that are official are the Iowa Democratic Party results. Entrance polls are not necessary."
Unless you are too impatient for reality, that is.