It was 2008. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) were locked in what would prove to be a historic battle for the Democratic presidential nomination — one that pitted the man destined to be the first African American president against a former first lady who longed for a much more powerful role in the White House. In Iowa during that state’s caucuses, voters debated the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Was Obama electable? Was the nation suffering from Clinton fatigue?
“In the end, you need someone that can cross the party lines and, quite honestly, I don’t think Hillary can do that,” local Obama precinct captain Gary Altwegg noted. But, when the two candidates tied in his precinct, logic and reasoning were put to the side. To decide who would be awarded the precinct’s odd delegate, it was time to trust in fate — and in a coin flip.
Although what denomination was used is lost to history, the outcome is not in doubt. Obama — and Altwegg — triumphed in the end. Why? “Because I called tails,” Altwegg said.
Letting chance decide, even in a small way, who becomes president sounds bizarre, but it didn’t just happen eight years ago. It happened Monday night in at least a handful of Iowa precincts where Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), now locked in what Sanders called a “virtual tie” in the state, fought to a deadlock. And, in at least six of those precincts, Clinton won spare delegates, based on reporting from the Des Moines Register and video posted to social media.
In another race, those heads-or-tails contests may not have mattered. But, early Tuesday, Clinton was ahead of Sanders in Iowa by just four “state delegate equivalents,” by that state’s particular jargon. Given that slim margin and the unknown intentions of Martin O’Malley’s eight SDEs now that the former Maryland governor has suspended his presidential campaign, those coin flips are looking mighty significant.
It’s best to let the Iowa Democratic Party explain: “On caucus night, Iowans in each precinct elect delegates to their county conventions, but the winner of the caucuses will be the candidate who accrues the most state delegate equivalents. State delegate equivalents are calculated using a ratio of state to county convention delegates. In other words, the ratio determines how many delegates the candidate would receive for the state convention based on the number of county convention delegates a candidate receives.”
Either way, people were flipping coins in Iowa, and it was weird.
One vocal Sanders supporter filmed a coin toss in Des Moines. At first, he seemed excited — perhaps in disbelief that a candidate many had written off months ago had given Clinton a run for her money.
“It’s an actual tie,” Benjamin O’Keefe said. “You can’t even write this.”
Then, the caucus got down to business. It had split, 61-61; Clinton was awarded two delegates, and Sanders was awarded two. What would become of the fifth delegate?
Enter the coin. Tails — Clinton won.
“What?” O’Keefe said. “… Can you explain this to us?” Someone did, adding insult to injury by saying “Touchdown Seahawks!” — a reference to a 2012 NFL controversy over what many consider to be a terribly random call.
“So by coin flip, Hillary Clinton has won this precinct,” O’Keefe said. He shrugged and smiled — the smile of a man consigned to his fate by powers beyond his understanding or control. “I don’t even know,” he said, gesturing confusedly at unfazed caucus-goers as the result was announced and Clinton supporters cheered.
“That’s the official rule,” a woman who announced the result added.
In Davenport, another precinct tied 84-84. It was time for someone to stretch out that thumb.
“Bernie’s side has called heads,” the coin tosser said, as documented in Davenport in a video posted by Robert Schule. As if to lend the proceedings an official air, she further explained the procedure: “I’m going to let the coin hit the floor.”
Gravity, of course, wins every caucus — the coin fell to Earth as expected. “No one touch it!” someone shouted. Tails again! Cheers erupted from the Clinton camp — and heads proved a loser for Sanders once more.
The Des Moines Register, meanwhile, reported six such coin tosses, including one in Ames, after an apparent miscount of the total number of caucus attendees. Clinton won all six, the Register reported. (One of those six is the same coin toss captured on video by Univision reporter Fernando Peinado and portrayed in the tweet embedded above from David Beard.)
Anyone who might want to tsk-tsk Iowa should note: It isn’t the only state to invoke chance procedures to decide close elections. In fact, 35 states do, by one Washington Post tally conducted in 2014.
And it’s not just coins that can push candidates over the finish line.
“Two candidates each received 246 votes for the 1st District commissioner in Cook County, Minnesota,” Stephen Pettigrew of FiveThirtyEight explained in 2014. “It was originally suggested that the candidates draw from a bag with two Scrabble tiles, and the person who picked the ‘Z’ would become commissioner. Ultimately, the race was instead decided by drawing wooden blocks from a cloth bag. Frank Moe drew the red block; Kristin DeArruda Wharton drew the blue one. Moe won the seat.”