Yet, for four days we’ve been waiting for a concrete answer to a simple question: Who won the Iowa Democratic caucuses? Normally, similar questions are answered in a few hours. On this one, we’ve been waiting more than 80.
Though, to be fair, it’s an unusually complicated situation, a debacle which has an impressive ability to spiral outward in new disastrous directions. It seemed useful, then, to walk through the entire mess, beginning at the beginning, back in Monday A.D.
Why does Iowa matter?
This seems like a good place to start, given that it may help inform how deep into the weeds you want to get. The short answer is that Iowa caucuses are important to the Democratic nominating process for two reasons.
The first is that the caucuses allocate delegates, people who will attend the Democratic National Convention this summer and actually vote for the party’s nominee. This year, the nomination will be won by whoever can cobble together 1,991 delegate votes at the convention.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Iowa allocates a substantial number of delegates, given the amount of attention the state receives, but it does not. At stake from the caucuses are 41 delegates, 2 percent of the total needed to win the nomination.
And that’s if one candidate earned all 41 delegates, something that would happen only if he or she essentially swept the state. The Democratic Party allocates delegates proportionally, meaning that if you hit a baseline of support in a state, you get a piece of the action. If Candidates A and B tie in a state with 20 delegates, each walks away with 10 delegates. (Uh, ideally. We’ll come back to this.)
So if two candidates tie in Iowa, each gets about 20 delegates, 1 percent of what they need to be the nominee. The impact of Iowa on the delegate count, in other words, is small, bordering on insignificant.
Iowa’s real importance lies in all of the attention we pay to it. It’s the first contest in the nominating process, so the media, campaigns and voters spend months fretting over it and gaming out what happens once it’s over. Campaigns spend millions of dollars to try to shape where they stand after the caucuses.
Being the first test of a presidential candidate’s campaign, if they do better or worse than expected at the caucuses, it shapes how the campaigns are viewed. A candidate expected to do well who falls completely flat — understanding that everyone will be watching closely — reveals something about their ability to compel voters and control the system. It doesn’t reveal everything, but it reveals enough that Iowa becomes a lot more important than, say, Puerto Rico, which allocates 51 delegates.
What did we expect to happen?
After the 2016 contest ended in what was essentially a tie between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton, the Iowa Democratic Party, which runs the caucuses, decided to make some changes. Historically, the winner of the caucuses was determined by the candidate who emerged with the most state-delegate equivalents, a value determined by a formula which correlates to the amount of support a candidate received.
We must now, with regret, dive into an important bit of math. (If you wish to dive even deeper, here you go.)
How state-delegate equivalents are calculated. (Buckle up.) In each caucus location, attendees are sorted into groups representing their preferred candidate. Supporters of candidates who don’t hit a threshold of support (usually 15 percent of attendees) then have to pick another, viable candidate to support.Each caucus location is allocated a certain number of county delegates who are divvied up depending on how much support the viable candidates earned. Each county gets a certain number of state delegates for the state convention which selects the 41 national delegates. So each county delegate is equal to a portion of the state delegates at stake in the county — meaning that each candidate’s county delegates can be translated into a state-delegate equivalent. See? Easy!
Four years ago, Sanders was frustrated in part that the media focused on this metric and not on the actual support shown by caucus-goers. In part to avoid similar concerns, the party this time around decided to release four metrics:
- support received at the outset,
- support received after realignment,
- state-delegate equivalents, and
- estimates of the national delegates each candidate would likely earn.
There were signs from the outset that Iowa would be messy. The Associated Press announced that it would use state-delegate equivalents as a metric for victory — the same metric it had used in the past — since that translated into where those 41 delegates would end up. The party itself washed its hands of formally determining any winner, given that there were decent odds that different candidates could come out on top based on different criteria.
How could that happen? We made a simple simulation that you can play with, but the upshot is that county delegates are worth different state-delegate equivalents in different places. You might have a county where a county delegate is worth, say, 0.25 state-delegate equivalents and another where that delegate is worth 0.125. Do better in caucus locations where the county delegates are worth more state-delegate equivalents and you end up with more state-delegate equivalents than you otherwise would have.
There were other changes, too, including introducing cards signed by caucus-goers which indicated their first and final choices of candidates. This, like Chekov’s gun, will be important later.
This is a lot, we know, but it’s important for understanding what happened.
Okay. So what happened?
On Monday, Iowans went to their caucus sites and did the Iowa Shuffle, moving between candidates until everyone who wanted to weigh in had done so and every remaining candidate was viable.
What was supposed to happen next was that the volunteers operating the caucus sites would tally up the county delegates earned by the viable candidates and transmit all of the data to the state party in Des Moines. And that’s where things went from complicated to apocalyptic.
The state party, hoping to streamline the reporting process, introduced a new phone app, which could be used to send the information to the state party. The development of the app was shaky, with relatively little testing, late changes, insufficient training and a complex log-in system meant to provide more security and protect the results. One former official said that the national party, the Democratic National Committee, mandated a last-minute security update to the tool, which may have introduced significant problems.
Based on the preceding paragraph, you will not be surprised to learn that some volunteers had issues using the app to send their data to Des Moines. In Des Moines, meanwhile, party officials were seeing unexpected numbers coming into the system. It turned out that a coding problem on their end was misreporting the data that was coming in, but on Monday night, from an abundance of caution, they put a hold on the automated system and encouraged volunteers to call in with their results instead.
Bear in mind, this wasn’t a normal election. This was the Iowa caucuses, with campaigns and the media eager to scrutinize every tiny detail of what happened. But then, suddenly, we learned that no data would be coming from the party on Monday night.
Dig a little deeper into the reporting issues?
The app wasn’t the only problem. Under enormous pressure to tally winners and provide information, the party began fielding calls from volunteers at the more-than-1,000 precinct locations statewide. Volunteers reported on social media — and, in one famous instance, live on CNN — that they couldn’t reach the party to report their results. Some tweeted out pictures of the sheets they’d used to tally the results at their caucus locations in an effort to push the information out.
That contributed to another problem. At the top of some of those pictures was the phone number volunteers were supposed to call to report their results. In short order, online trolls began calling the number, flooding the system and increasing the problems in gathering information.
One volunteer who spoke with The Washington Post indicated that things were a mess internally in Des Moines, too. After reporting the results from his precinct, he was called in the middle of the night and asked for them again, suggesting that somehow the system of collecting the data over the phones was breaking down even after the data were received.
Maybe a little deeper?
At first, the party appeared to be holding off on reporting data until it had complete or near-complete results. This made sense; given that the most important role Iowa plays is in determining how effective campaigns were at organizing their supporters, incomplete data might give a misleading or premature sense of that effectiveness.
But the party was under enormous pressure to provide some information. So, on Tuesday it announced that it would publish the results from just over half of the precincts. It did so — and analysts were off to the races.
The Post got the data and, in short order, realized that something was wrong. The rules guiding the allocation of county delegates and state-delegate equivalents is clear, yet there were precincts in which state-delegate equivalents were given to candidates who’d received no votes at all after realignment. In other precincts, the number of delegates shifted from first to final alignment for candidates where no such shift should have occurred. We reached out to the party but never heard back.
Meanwhile, the party kept publishing additional data, without fixing the old problems.
On Wednesday night, the party released data that included results from what were called “satellite caucuses,” which were held outside of Iowa, to incorporate the views of Iowans who were living out of state.
This, too, was a post-2016 innovation, meaning that there were kinks.
One related to how state-delegate equivalents are calculated. You’ll remember that state-delegate equivalents are calculated based on how many county delegates candidates earn. In the case of the satellite caucuses, though, the rules were murky. (The New York Times has a good breakdown of the conflict.) Under one interpretation, the number of state-delegate equivalents awarded at a site is directly proportional to turnout. Under another interpretation, it depends on the number of county delegates awarded to the satellite location, in the same way it worked in Iowa itself.
Imagine, then, a large satellite caucus location in which 400 people participated or a smaller one in which 40 people participated. Under the first interpretation, the 400-person site would get 10 times as many state-delegate equivalents as the 40-person one. Under the second interpretation of the rules, the larger location would get nine county delegates — the maximum awarded to a site — and the smaller one five. That’s less than twice as many county delegates and, therefore, a much narrower margin in state-delegate equivalents.
You can see how the different interpretations of the rules would lead to big differences in where candidates end up. The party used the first interpretation, which benefited Sanders. We’ll come back to this, too.
So who won?
It’s ... not really clear.
As it stands, with all of the precincts in, Sanders leads on two metrics — support after the first alignment and support after the second alignment — and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg leads on the state-delegate equivalent metric.
Buttigieg put an emphasis on counties where the county delegates were worth more state-delegate equivalents, and it seems to have paid off. Only barely, though. He currently leads by a 564.02-to-562.44 margin, fewer than two state-delegate equivalents. That narrow lead is in part a function of how the party interpreted the satellite caucus rules. Incidentally, Sanders’s campaign put a focus on organizing those.
The overarching problem is that there are still obvious problems with the data. While the party says all of the precinct data are in, it’s clear that some of the data weren’t reported or calculated properly.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez on Thursday called for the totals in a number of precincts to be retabulated using the voter preference cards that were filled out at the precinct locations. He reportedly gave the Iowa party only a brief heads up before making that demand public. It’s also not clear that he actually has the authority to make the request in the first place.
Who won depends in some part on which metric you consider the most important. The AP, which uses those state-delegate equivalents, threw up its hands on Thursday, announcing that it couldn’t declare a winner.
It probably doesn’t matter to a significant degree. Remember how we pointed out that the delegates are awarded proportionally? That means that Sanders and Buttigieg, essentially tying, will end up with about the same number of national delegates when all of the counting and calculations are complete. Buttigieg may end up with two more national delegates than Sanders (especially if the satellite caucus delegates are recalculated) and that difference may end up being important. It’s largely this that’s being fought over now.
If history is any guide, that difference will not end up being important.
On the other metric that Iowa provides — how effective the campaigns proved to be — there is a clear winner and a clear loser. Buoyed by the release of partial data showing him doing unexpectedly well, Buttigieg saw a surge in attention and in a poll tracking opinions about the next state to vote, New Hampshire. Sanders was expected to do well and Buttigieg did better than expected, so he got more of a boost.
The clear loser? Former vice president Joe Biden. He’ll come away with some delegates from Iowa, but he was expected to be vying for first place in the state. He ended up in fourth.
There you have it. Now let us never talk of the Iowa caucuses again.