Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

For Democrats in Iowa, spin counts a lot more than the actual numbers

COMMENTARY | August 07, 2007

No one may ever know what the actual popular vote is in the Iowa Democratic caucuses—and traditionally, no one much cares. The press will still contrive to tell us who the winners and losers are. (One in an occasional series)

By Herb Strentz

“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 also 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 Jan. 15, 2008, the day after the Iowa caucuses, the news media will report how Democratic candidates fared in Iowa the night before (presuming the current Jan. 14 date is not advanced into December to preserve Iowa’s “first in the nation” status). 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. 

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.

Indeed, the game of expectations may focus a good bit on the candidacy of John Edwards this time around. In 2004, Edwards received 32 percent of the awarded delegates. That may become a benchmark for his success or failure in January. Given that the 2008 field may be more crowded, or more competitive, Edwards may do well, but win fewer delegates than he did in 2004. If so, expect pundits to call him a loser.

In the 1,784 Democratic precincts the focus is on selecting 13,485 delegates statewide 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.” In the national election, we know if we elect a “minority” president. In the Iowa caucuses, once precinct delegates are apportioned no record is kept of the turnout for each candidate. 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 or she may have done far better than anyone expected and get no recognition at all.

You might say that caucus results on the Democratic side are contrived to give the news media something to report. That, in fact, was documented in a 1987 book, “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses, The Making of a Media Event,” by Hugh Winebrenner. Sometimes, as Winebrenner showed, those results can be misleading. But caucus supporters argue that focusing on the 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 that the results are close enough to have a valid role in shaping that fate.

Earlier in this series: 

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.