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How CNN made its Election Center your primary (and caucus) destination

The 2020 primary race has only just begun, which means months of speculation, polling, and debates.  CNN wants to help you keep track of it all with its 2020 Election Center, a collection of pages devoted to the states, candidates, and the primaries and caucuses. With a trove of data, Manav Tanneeru, CNN’s senior director of product, helped create the center, and he told Digital Trends how he hopes it will help guide people through the 2020 election.

Caucus today, primary tomorrow 

CNN's Election Center Polling Page

The platform is dynamic, so what you see on the day before the New Hampshire primary will be different when it happens on Tuesday. “On election days, it’s all about election results, that live experience,” said Tanneeru. “Before and after election days and contests, it’s all about what’s going on in the campaigns.” The New Hampshire page shows the number of pledged and superdelegates, as well as some background on the part the state has played in past primaries and elections.

States with relatively close primaries and caucuses have polling results as well, though many aren’t all that current. The most recent poll for South Carolina is from January 9. After a state’s results are final, CNN will display some fairly nitty-gritty detail, in addition to the top-level numbers. For Iowa, you can see the numbers county by county. Visitors will have varying levels of interest and many may not want to go that deep, said Tanneeru. “Not everybody cares about satellite caucuses, but there are those that do,” he said. “Our ambition is to serve as many different kinds of users as possible.”

The information powering the election center comes from a number of sources, including past elections, Census demographics for each state, candidates’ fundraising data from the Federal Election Commission, and both internal and external polling. “There’s more data than ever before,” Tanneeru said. The more people engage with the content in the module, the more he and his team will learn about what they’re looking for.

The feedback loop

Tanneeru makes no secret that he wants people to make a habit of visiting the election center. “The driving force of all of this is engagement, engagement, engagement,” he said. “We track how users engage and consume our experience,” he said. After looking at how people used the site for Iowa and conducting surveys, they can make changes. If people are really interested in exit polling, for example, they might make that searchable. “We are going to pivot accordingly,” he said.

Among the updates from 2016 are explainers, like the Delegates 101 tab you’ll find on the state pages. “In the past, the election center may have been not just data-centric, but solely data-driven,” said Tanneeru. “One of our goals this year is to integrate as much as editorial content as possible, whether it’s analysis or explanatory journalism.”

If we learned one thing from the Iowa caucus debacle, it’s that sometimes you’re still as clueless when you wake up the next morning as when you went to bed, even if you breathlessly followed up-to-the-second results. It’s a lesson some remember from The New York Times’ election needle.

CNN Election Center's Iowa Results

Though Tanneeru says on primary and caucus nights, the election center will have that sort of minute-by-minute drama, he still thinks it’s insulated from unfounded speculation. “If you don’t see a checkmark by a certain candidate, that means that CNN has not projected a winner, officially or formally.” The election center will work in concert with CNN anchors and its Magic Wall. “Until Wolf Blitzer comes on air and announces that projection, we just show the data,” said Tanneeru.

As he points out, they’re at the mercy of what the states release, so if it’s getting to be your bedtime, maybe just wait until the morning to hit refresh.

Correction 2/11: This story initially misstated the source of candidates’ fundraising data. That data comes from the Federal Election Commission.

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