As Thompson was preparing for his duties, he hoped that an odd number of people would show up, because he knew from the polling that things were going to be close and an odd number means no ties. Just in case, though, he came prepared. "I mooched an Iowa quarter off my wife," he said, "thinking I may need it later."
He watched as people came in. There are 162 registered Democrats in the township, which is just west of Iowa City — and 58 came out to caucus. After re-sorting the Martin O'Malley supporters, who didn't hit the viability threshold, the split was 29-29, and no one wanted to budge.
So out came the quarter, tossed into the air by reassigned O'Malley backer Kevin Kinney, an Iowa state senator.
The one delegate that the people of Hardin Township were voting on would go to Bernie Sanders.
In the wake of the close election in Iowa, a lot of attention has been paid to those coin tosses. (We looked at this on Tuesday.) But what hasn't been clearly understood is what those coin tosses determined.
The delegates selected by Democrats in Iowa on Monday were not the delegates who will head to Philadelphia for the party convention. They're not even the 1,400-odd delegates who will head to the district and state conventions who will pick the delegates who go to Philadelphia. The delegates who were picked on Monday were county delegates — about 11,000 of them — who will then go to the state and district conventions. Three layers removed. The victor in Thompson's coin flip, then, was 0.009 percent of the total number of delegates chosen for Sanders on Monday.
Thompson insists that he did his best to avoid a tie. Only one delegate was being decided on, after all, and a coin toss is a pretty lousy way to have to assign it. But what else can you do? "There's a lot of passionate people on both sides and they wanted their candidate to win," Thompson said, explaining the stalemate. "These are my friends. They're my neighbors."
As it turns out, he did what he was supposed to do. The guide for precinct captains in the state, shared with The Washington Post, includes a number of mentions to the preferred way of settling ties: flipping coins.
Sam Lau, the party's communications director, said it was hard for the party to tell just how many county delegates were selected with coin tosses. Many precincts reported results using a phone app, which didn't specify how they were chosen. Those reporting through the (controversial) Microsoft system, though, could indicate when a coin flip was used to pick a winner. There were seven recorded in that system, Lau said. In six of those, Sanders won the toss.
On Tuesday, an initial report from the Des Moines Register indicated that there were six coin tosses, all of which were won by Clinton. Other news articles over the course of the day showed that Sanders won others elsewhere in the state; it was mostly those, it seems, that were reported to the state Democratic party. We may never know how many coin tosses there were in total. But we can estimate how important they were. If Iowa's 11,000 county delegates, selected Monday, eventually get pared down to 1400 state delegates, that implies that about eight county delegates equal one at the state level. Clinton won Iowa by four state-delegate-equivalents, meaning — according to my calculations — that it would have taken winning about 32 more coin flips than Sanders to have been what put her over the top.
Thompson's frustration that his vote came down to a coin toss was still evident, two days later. "Look, I know you folks over there on the East Coast — and probably people around the country — feel that flipping a coin is idiotic and archaic, and something you only see at a sporting event," he said. "But Iowans are a pragmatic people. We have lives. It was 10:30 when I got home!"
"You gotta decide it somehow," he said. "And frankly, a coin flip — that's how we do it. Get over it."