It's tricky. One extreme is a tweet I just saw from Dave Weigel:
Not to spoil the party, but I just won as many delegates as the GOP candidates will tonight.That's true of Missouri, where the primary has absolutely nothing to do with a completely separate delegate selection process. But it's not true of most GOP caucus states, including the two tonight, at least if I'm reading Josh Putnam's descriptions of Colorado and Minnesota correctly.
Here's the details, and I apologize for getting more technical than I like to -- for the bottom line, skip all the way down to the final three paragraphs below. What the two caucus states are holding are first-stage caucuses, basically similar to what Republicans do in Iowa. Two things will happen. One is a straw vote for presidential preference. That's what's going to get reported tonight. The other is an election of delegates to the next-stage county caucuses. The county caucuses will select delegates to congressional district meetings; those meetings will choose some delegates to the national convention, and also choose delegates for the state convention, which in turn will choose the remainder of the selected delegates for the national convention. Got all that? Again, all credit here to Josh Putnam's descriptions (I'm no expert on the state-by-state details; Josh is, and if I botched it the fault is of course mine).
What this all means is that the delegate selection process in these states is separable from the "vote" that will be reported tonight, but it's not entirely separate, either. Think of it this way. If the campaigns were perfectly organized, then every caucuser in each of these states would vote for a next-stage delegate who was loyal to the same candidate he or she voted for in the straw poll. That would produce county conventions that perfectly translated those precinct results up the line, and so on, with the result that the eventual delegation would simply reflect the original straw vote (and I'm trying to be accurate here and I hope Josh or local experts will correct me if I'm not, so I'll note that they would "simply reflect" the original straw vote as translated through the distribution of the vote in different precincts and counties and CDs, so we might not expect the state delegation to have the same percentage breakdown as the original straw vote).
Except that in fact the campaigns are not perfectly organized. Some voters might leave the room before the second step of the two-step process (that is, they'll participate in the straw vote but not the election of next-stage delegates). Some might vote for, say, Santorum in the straw vote, but Joe from down the street to go to the county meeting, even though Joe turns out to be a Romney man. Maybe Mary gets picked as a Santorum delegate, but by the time she reaches county, she's become a Newt fan. For that matter, after George gets picked by the state convention, he may suddenly convert to Paulism and vote that way after previously assuring everyone he was for Santorum. There are, as Josh says, no rules guaranteeing that anything that happens tonight will translate into eventual delegate numbers; it's all about actual people participating in the various stages of the process, and the ability of the candidate campaigns to organize. (In Colorado, apparently, delegates can choose to run as pledge or unpledged and then have to stick with their pledge unless their candidate drops out; Josh doesn't explain what, if any, enforcement mechanism there is for that).
OK. So what should the press do?
Clearly, there should be some positive relationship between the straw vote and the eventual delegates. I really don't know what the history of this is...for one thing, we haven't had access to what happens by convention time because Republicans haven't had a contested convention since 1976, and given how many candidate drop-outs there are it's probably common for everything to get tossed and turned just between precinct and next-stage meetings.
Back to the main question: how should the press cover it?
On caucus night, I think it's reasonable to report the straw vote and treat it as a real result; that is, as a vote proper, and not similar to the Ames Straw Poll or even to tonight's Missouri primary, which is entirely unattached to the delegate process.
But it is a mistake, as Josh argues, for the networks to apportion the delegates in proportion to the raw vote (or even the vote adjusted for location; that is, by CD for delegates chosen that way and statewide for those chosen at the state convention).
However, I have no problem with websites (or TV networks, if they choose to do so) to have a second, "as-if-allocated" count. For example, here's Josh's graph of the delegate count after Nevada. He has 27 of Iowa's 28 delegates as "Unbound." But we probably know a bit more than that; we don't know if they'll be allocated exactly according to the January 3 caucus results, but it's probably a pretty good hint. A second graph with those delegates provisionally allocated based on those results -- labeled separately from the pledged delegates -- would help us have a better sense of the emerging delegates totals, when available.CNN's magic board could certainly accommodate that sort of thing, too, and it's no more complex than other things that John King has used it for. Pretty simple, really: the Official Delegate Count won't include the unchosen caucus state delegates until they are chosen and declared, but then a second count for "if the caucus states produce delegates to match their initial votes" or some such explanation can include, after tonight, Iowa, Colorado, and Minnesota.