Democratic elections, even at their most transparent and even when best facilitated, lend themselves to conspiracy theories. There are all sorts of points at which one can introduce doubt, if one is so inclined: Who turned out, how the vote was tallied, how the vote was conducted, how the results were reported. So on. So forth.
When an election is instead conducted with a certain level of opaqueness or an unusual amount of complexity, and when that election ends in something close to a tie, an assumption that something untoward happened is all but inevitable. And when that happens during a political campaign in which one candidate has a massive amount of support on the conspiracy Petri dish that is Reddit -- well...
In the wake of Iowa's caucuses last week, some fans of Donald Trump first suggested that Microsoft threw the race to help Marco Rubio. Later, Trump himself implied that he came in second because Ted Cruz cheated. Each of these is easily dismissed, should one wish to accede to rationality.
On the Democratic side, though, the race was much closer.
"The official results give Hillary Clinton a razor then [sic] victory of 4 state delegate equivalents; 701-697," the site How America Will Vote explains. "The true purpose of the Democratic Iowa Caucus is to elect precinct delegates which are extrapolated to state level delegates by the media; the popular vote is never known." Which is where HAWV steps in. It is asking users to help uncover the vote totals for the delegate elections in each of the hundreds of caucus locations across Iowa on Feb. 1, so that "the popular vote" might be known. The effort was embraced by Reddit's Sanders supporters -- who are also reporting that the Democratic Party in the state appears to be trying to stand in their way.
As with the conspiracy theories about Microsoft and Cruz, it is a small number of people who are here convinced that there is a greater truth to be uncovered. This is no more an example of the thinking of every member of Reddit than the Rubio theories were representative of the thinking of every person who will vote for Donald Trump.
But this is also something for which Reddit has become known -- these attempts to solve mysteries, real and imagined, leveraging the power of the Reddit crowd and the energy of un-self-aware skepticism in order to track down The Truth. Sometimes it works, as when the community helped identify an anonymous man who died in 1995. Sometimes it fails spectacularly, as when it tackled the Boston bombings. That tendency, overlaid on Reddit's massive and vocal community of Sanders supporters, made something like this Iowa investigation inevitable.
What HAWV is collecting, with Reddit's help, is the final tallies that resulted in the delegate elections. Reddit is using things like the tweet that follows to help assemble what it calls the popular vote.
Text: Unofficial numbers out of Johnson County precinct 11 Bernie - 356 votes Hillary - 73
— Chris Higgins (@chris_higgins_) February 2, 2016
Before we go further, though, it's important to set a baseline for how the process works. As HAWV notes, the final tallies reported by the Democratic Party were not of the number of voters backing Hillary Clinton and Sanders. The totals that were released were "state delegate equivalents," the approximate number of state delegates that will be chosen by the county delegates who were the ones who were actually elected on the night of the caucus.
We dove into this last week, and it's complicated. But the short version is that Iowa Democrats weren't voting for a candidate, they were caucusing for delegates. There is horse-trading and strategy and rhetoric that comes into play, and there's a built-in system by which people necessarily change their minds if their preferred candidate doesn't have enough support to warrant winning a delegate. If you came into the caucuses a Martin O'Malley supporter, the odds are good that, at the end of the night, you ended up adding to a total on behalf of Clinton or Sanders. And depending on those tallies, a small number of the 11,000 delegates selected last Monday were assigned.
So let's say that there was a caucus location at which 10 people showed up. Four backed Clinton, four backed Sanders, and two backed O'Malley. Those O'Malley supporters would have to pick a side, since O'Malley wouldn't have hit the necessary threshhold of support. If they split 50/50, the final tally is 5-5, and unless someone's mind was changed, it goes to a coin toss. But if both go to, say, Sanders, the tally is 6-4, and Sanders gets the delegate.
The key question is this: Is it fair to say that the vote in that location was 6-4 for Sanders?
"The Iowa precinct caucuses are not a primary, nor a straw poll," said Iowa Democratic Party executive director Ben Foecke when reached by email. "They are meetings where Democrats debate issues, candidates, and finally choose people from their precinct to represent them at the county conventions as delegates."
"Individual support -- or 'raw vote' as people are calling it now -- at the end of the precinct caucus often looks much different than the individual support at the beginning of a precinct caucus," Foecke wrote. "It does not accurately reflect what happened at that precinct where delegates are elected. Candidates are competing for delegates at the caucuses, and that is what the party reports."
That's a perfectly fair response. The party has never released those numbers, for precisely that reason.
It's important to note that this is a different effort than the push from both campaigns to resolve discrepancies in the number of delegates that were awarded. The party revised its totals after reviewing the numbers, showing the close race got a little closer.
What's happening on (that small part of that small part of) Reddit is different. It's an attempt to be able to declare The Real Winner in the state -- a declaration that would serve for them as Trump's claims that Iowa was stolen from him serve for Trump: An emotional balm to soothe a difficult loss.
It wouldn't change the number of actual convention delegates -- the people that vote for the president, who are the only ones that matter.
The Iowa caucuses are clumsy and weird, but they do have an advantage over most elections: Everyone in the room knows how you voted. The broad distribution of delegate elections -- hundreds of sites, thousands chosen -- and the transparency in each room provide serious stumbling blocks to broad-scale manipulation of data. Possible? Sure. Anything's possible. It's very safe to assume, though, that Iowa was exactly what it appeared to be: A tie.
Then again, we're talking about Reddit. And so the conspiracy was born.