Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: Of Horseshoes, Hand Grenades and the Iowa Caucuses

Posted at 6:51 pm, December 18th, 2007
Herb Strentz Mug

“Close enough” only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and the Democratic Party’s side of the first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential caucuses.

The wisdom of including horseshoes and hand grenades in “close enough” is self-evident.

As for Iowa politics — critics will say that compared to the caucuses the Electoral College is a model of precision and expression of the popular will. That’s because even though the Electoral College casts the deciding votes you at least know the breakdown of the popular vote. In the Iowa Democratic caucuses, you don’t know who most of the people voted for — unless you assume the person with the most delegates had the most support, a logical but not necessarily accurate assumption.

While the Republicans report the number of caucus goers supporting each candidate, the Democrats report the percentage of precinct delegates won by candidates. That distinction sometimes is lost on the news media.

Consequently, when it comes to the Democrats, readers and viewers cannot trust news accounts that report what percent of the vote a Democratic candidate won in the caucuses. The report should be in terms of what percent of statewide delegates he or she won to the upcoming county conventions. But even that account is riddled with caveats.

On caucus night some 220,000 or so Iowans will gather in schools, churches and homes around their state to say whom they want for their parties’ presidential candidates. On Jan. 4, 2008, the day after the Iowa caucuses, the news media will report how Democratic candidates fared.

Pundits will survey the results and anoint winners — those who did better than the pundits expected — and dismiss losers — those who did poorly and those who did well, just not as well as the pundits had prophesied.

In the 1,784 Democratic precincts the focus is on selecting delegates to the county conventions, the second of three steps to the state convention, where the final delegation to the national convention in Denver will be selected, party platform adopted, etc.

Under the formulas used to apportion delegates, it is possible that the candidate with the highest percentage of delegates did not really lead in the statewide popular vote. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the number of delegates a precinct has is not based on turnout on caucus night, but rather on Democratic turnout by the precinct in previous elections. So, on caucus night, a precinct with a turnout of 200 people could have fewer delegates to award than a precinct with a turnout of 50. Yet the delegate count is the one emphasized.

In the national election, we know if we elect a “minority” president. In the Iowa caucuses, once precinct delegates are apportioned, the record of the turnout for each candidate is not disclosed by the Democrats. And, because of the math involved, you cannot extrapolate from delegates won back to popular vote received.

Further, because a candidate must have at least 15 percent of the votes at a precinct to receive even one delegate, it is possible that a second or third-tier candidate could garner a surprising 10 to 12 percent of the statewide vote and get zero delegates. He may have done far better than anyone expected and get no recognition at all.

Sometimes that difference is lost in the shuffle.

In its 2000 coverage of caucus results, The New York Times made no distinction between the GOP and Democratic totals, reporting each candidate’s support as though it were a percentage of the caucus goers individual votes. In 2004, The Times did make the distinction between percentage of votes won by GOP contenders and percentage of delegates won by the Democratic hopefuls. But old habits die hard, and in the June 18th New York Times, the paper quoted Edwards as saying he would have won Iowa in 2004 with 1,000 more votes — losing track of the delegates again.

So, what’s going on if the caucus results are contrived to give the news media something to report (as documented in The Iowa Precinct Caucuses, The Making of a Media Event, by Hugh Winebrenner, Iowa State University Press, 1987) and if those reports can be misleading?

Well, it is figured, the percent of support shown by precinct emphasis on delegate selection is “close enough.” Maybe any disparity averages out in closer races. On the other hand, if the gap is large — as it was in 2000 — when Al Gore won 63 percent of the delegates to Bill Bradley’s 35, what’s the diff’? And perhaps reporting the popular vote would be too close to having a primary election and lose Iowa its coveted status as the nation’s bellwether.

Besides, caucus supporters would argue, focusing on the caucus math too much loses sight of the bigger picture: How in the years leading up to caucus night, real live candidates meet face to face with real live people and discuss issues that help shape campaigns, presidencies and our nation’s fate.

And the caucus results on the Democratic side are considered close enough to play a role in shaping that fate.

Herb Strentz, Gil Cranberg and Glenn Roberts made some of these points in an op-ed in today’s New York Times.

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