We know that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seems likely to have emerged with the most support and that former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg will end up with the most state-delegate equivalents, one of those layers of complexity that makes Iowa so charmingly annoying.
We know, too, that this gap between who apparently won (based on votes) and who did win (based on delegates) was a possibility coming into the caucuses and made more likely the closer the actual results were. The results were very close, according to the partial data we have at our disposal, and so we get two winners. For now. Until all the results are in.
What we got out of Iowa, really, was a tie. Sanders and Buttigieg will move forward with about the same number of delegates from the first contest of the Democratic primary season. We did learn that former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign is shakier than it might have seemed, a useful bit of information that may not simply be a function of Iowa’s odd process. But what we didn’t really get is any candidate lurching forward significantly on the path toward the nomination.
That’s because it’s Iowa, which is always a much smaller part of the nominating calculus than its reputation would suggest.
Consider how the eventual delegate totals for the leading Democratic presidential contenders in 2008 and 2016 broke out. On this map, the circles are scaled to the percent each state contributed to the total delegates each candidate earned.
California is the largest for each candidate, but other states vary. Illinois was a larger part of Barack Obama’s total in 2008 than it was Hillary Clinton’s that year. New York was bigger for Clinton in 2016 than it was for Sanders. And so on.
If you keep your eye on Iowa, though, you see that it’s never a very big circle. Generally speaking, it’s about 1 percent of the delegates that candidates end up earning. Obama earned 6.6 delegates in California for every one in Iowa in 2008. Clinton earned 11.7 California delegates for every one in Iowa eight years later when she and Sanders similarly tied in the Hawkeye State.
It seems as though every four years we forget how the broad proportionality in how Democratic delegates are allocated leads to protracted nominating contests. So, a reminder: the Democrats award delegates in a broadly proportional way, leading to protracted nominating contests! That also means that ties lead to diminished returns for candidates. The way Clinton won in 2016 was by heavily outperforming Sanders in a slew of Southern states and running closer to him elsewhere. Sanders couldn’t catch up.
Setting aside the implications of how candidates fared in Iowa (like Biden’s struggles), the functional utility of candidates tying in the state is near zero. This, in fact, is the entire crux of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presidential play: He’s simply skipping the first four states, which award about 4 percent of the delegates in play during the nominating contest, and focusing on the first contest in March.
By the end of the day on March 3, nearly 40 percent of the delegates will have been awarded. Bloomberg is letting his opponents struggle for attention and narrative bursts in those first four, relatively small states and instead blanketing the bigger, more delegate-heavy states that vote early next month. It’s nontraditional, but when you have the resources to essentially run a general-election-scale campaign out of your own pocket, why not?
The Iowa Democratic Party’s struggles in unveiling the results of the caucuses will linger until 2024, certainly. But the actual winners of the contest, however you evaluate them, will probably end up not mattering that much by the time the nomination is wrapped up.
Perhaps this is the year when one candidate ends up beating another by the one delegate that was awarded in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. Bloomberg, for one, doesn’t seem to be worried that it will be.