None of these totals are trustworthy. Presidential campaigns aren’t unbiased election results providers, and the final, official counts will disprove at least one candidate’s spin. Democracy won’t die if the American people collectively wait a bit longer for election results from Iowa.
At this time, it appears as if Buttigieg and Sanders have both provided hard numbers to back up their claims. CNBC reported that a Buttigieg aide collected data from 77 percent of the campaign’s precinct captains, and that the results put the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., ahead. Similarly, Sanders pointed to results from 40 percent of precincts that had him ahead. But not all numbers are created equal. No matter how vigorous the tracking operations are, the figures the campaigns are citing are estimates created by a political operation that’s committed to electing a candidate. And the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns aren’t releasing these numbers out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re trying to claim the mantle of victory, gain momentum and hope that momentum sticks even if the eventual results name a different winner.
This default is to be expected: Campaigns try to thread the needle by spinning the truth as much as they can without getting punished by voters or the news media. Warren’s campaign might be broadly correct that she was in the top tier with Buttigieg and Sanders, but she strategically chose to emphasize that Biden, the other consensus candidate, was in a distant fourth. The Klobuchar campaign, which sees a competitor in fellow moderate Biden, has also said that its candidate is running close to or ahead of the former vice president. Biden, who was second in the polls but is fourth in Sanders’s count as well, has emphasized his endorsements in later states and has clearly telegraphed concerns about the process.
The best way forward is for election-watchers to preserve a healthy but not overzealous skepticism. It’s possible for campaigns to be giving out their best estimates of the results and to be engaging in spin in an attempt to turn a logistical disaster into a boost down the line in New Hampshire. Patience might not be fun. But accurate, official results are worth waiting for.