January 27, 2020

The Iowa caucuses have grown into two roles: They serve as a slingshot for candidates to move on to other states, and as a funnel that winnows down big fields of candidates.

This year, even more than in previous years, journalists should resist the temptation to overstate the outcome of the Iowa caucus vote. As much as headline writers and TV analysts want to declare winners and losers, Iowa adopted new rules to an already complicated system that defy crisp declarations.

In 2016, the internet buzzed with videos of coin tosses that settled how many Iowa delegates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton would get. The Des Moines Register called the 2016 caucuses a “debacle.” This year, in an effort to be “transparent,” Iowa will report not one, but three results.

Politico calls the new rules for the 2020 Iowa caucuses a “hot mess.” Iowa’s caucus system does not result in a winner and loser like a football score. It is exactly what you do not expect in an election — a nuanced outcome.

Remember that a candidate who does not attract at least 15% of the supporters in any caucus gathering is not even counted because the candidate is thought not to be “viable.” Instead, supporters of the non-viable candidate get invited to join somebody who has more support. In the smallest precincts where the caucus will only select two delegates, 25% of the attendees are needed for a candidate to be viable. In precincts electing three delegates the threshold for viability is 16.66%.

Because of this, the results, when they are publicly reported, will show up in three categories.

Result 1: The first expression of preference. This reflects how many supporters each candidate got before the “realignment,” which happens where those with less than 15% scatter to other campaigns. Let’s say Candidate A gets more support than Candidate B in the “first expression of preference.” But then the caucuses begin and there are some candidates who do not get 15% of the support and they mostly align with Candidate B. Candidate B could end up the winner in the final alignment, even though he/she was not the winner when voters were asked, “Who is your first preference?”

Result 2: The final expression of preference, which shows what happened after “realignment.”

Result 3: This is state delegate equivalents, which looks at 1,679 caucus sites and calculates who gets how many delegates. This adds to the confusion because the caucus vote in February does not allocate national convention delegates as you might assume. It instead chooses the number of delegates each candidate will have when the state Democratic convention meets in June. Then, the state party affirms how many delegates each candidate gets for the national convention. The math behind this can get tricky. For example, imagine a precinct has five delegates to award and four candidates are determined to be viable. Each candidate would get one delegate, but what happens to the leftover fifth one? Sometimes a viable group will give up supporters to a non-viable group to keep an opponent from getting a second delegate. It is as much a math contest as it is a political contest. (The Republicans have a much simpler system. There are no thresholds to meet and caucus-goers write their choice on a paper ballot and turn it in.)

NBC’s Chuck Todd cautions that this year it will be possible for multiple Democratic candidates to claim some version of winning because they got lots of die-hard “first expression” votes but were forced to settle for a second-choice candidate. “For lower-tier candidates such as Tom Steyer or Andrew Yang, the initial vote numbers could be crucial,” Alexandra Jaffe explained for RealClearPolitics. “If they don’t hit the 15% support needed to win any delegates but still turn out more individual caucus-goers than expected, for instance, they could point to their initial support as evidence they remain competitive in the primary.”

The Associated Press says it will report all three results but “will declare a winner in Iowa based on the number of state delegates each candidate wins.”

The Democrats will use a similar “three result” reporting system in the Nevada caucuses February 22.

Why Iowa?

Iowa has 41 pledged delegates, about one percent of the delegates who go to the national Democratic Convention. Why should such a tiny number of voters influence the vote for 1,512 delegates that will be chosen on Super Tuesday, a month later?

A few weeks after Iowa’s caucus, New Hampshire will choose 24 delegates, Nevada will choose 36 pledged delegates and then South Carolina will choose 54 delegates. But some candidates may not survive long enough to make it there.

You can partly blame George McGovern (or at least how media treated his campaign) for how much attention we give now to the Iowa caucuses. In 1972, he finished “better than expected” and got enough media attention that he became viable. Four years later, Jimmy Carter used Iowa to build a base of support that showed he was a serious candidate, too.

Over the years, the notion that there are “three tickets out of Iowa” has proven to be mostly true. Each party has an exception. In 2008, John McCain finished fourth in Iowa but went on to become the Republican candidate for president. In 1992, Bill Clinton also finished fourth and became the “Comeback Kid” to get elected. Both McCain and Clinton made little effort in Iowa so they didn’t suffer media beatings when they finished low.

In addition to being bashed by journalists, campaign contributions tend to dry up for those who do not finish in the top three in Iowa. “In the 2008 caucus, the two lowest-scoring Democratic candidates dropped out of the presidential race within the week, and the Republican pool of candidates decreased from seven to three after a little more than a month. In 2012, the three lowest-scoring Republican candidates dropped out within a few weeks,” Story Hinckley reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

Since Iowa began its caucus system in 1972 about half of the winners (55%) went on to be nominated by their party. Only three, two Democrats and one Republican, became president (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and George W. Bush). But narrow the focus to the individual parties and Iowa’s caucuses are a much better prediction of who the Democrats will nominate than the Republicans. The Democrats’ nomination reflected Iowa’s results 70% of the time, while about 38% of GOP Iowa winners have become nominees.

A Washington Post column pointed out that a number of other primary election states — including Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin — all have a better track record than Iowa for their results pointing to the eventual nominee. But it is true that some of those primaries come late in the election cycle so the eventual winner would be more obvious.

But Iowans, especially Iowa media, defend the caucus system, saying being first means candidates will visit the state many times and voters can lay eyes on them in person, rather than just hearing from the candidates through commercials. One analyst says campaigns will spend more money in January and February on Iowa TV commercials than was spent during the entire 2016 election cycle in the state. Iowa’s hotels, bars and others also cash in on the attention. If Iowa changed to a primary system, and there is no serious movement to do that, then New Hampshire would kick in its law requiring that state to be the first state to hold a primary.

Binge and explore

Dive into The Des Moines Register’s caucus data page and you will see the state can signal when a supposed “front-runner” has troubles. Gerald Ford, for example, was the incumbent and narrowly beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa. Ford hung on to the nomination but lost to Jimmy Carter in the general election. Iowa reveals vulnerabilities, that much is true. The Register’s Katie Akin provides a handy historical chart going back to 1972.

Podcast lovers will feast on the Register’s “Three Tickets” podcast. I especially recommend this episode that keeps repeating “caucuses are not elections.” The episode explains how caucuses work and how Democratic and Republican caucuses are different.

In that episode, you will hear long-time caucus experts explain that Iowa is a statement of preference. It is not an election. It is an attempt to choose the most viable candidates, not to vote for one person to be nominated. That nuance is lost in media reports.

Lower your expectations

Iowa’s caucuses do not produce precise winner and loser outcomes. This is why Iowa has become a game of expectations —  largely media expectations — showing how a candidate is faring and is likely to fare based on one mostly rural and 90% White state where many voters don’t even bother to show up. A New York Times editorial said, “In 2016, less than 16 percent of Iowa’s voting-eligible population participated in its caucuses. In New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary, the participation rate was over 52 percent.” And Iowa, in 2020, will not be able to tell us whether Michael Bloomberg has a shot, since he is not participating in the caucuses.

Journalists should lower expectations for how clearly they can responsibly report what Iowa’s caucuses mean to the rest of the country. A more accurate (if less fulfilling) way to describe the Iowa caucus results would be to say, “Iowa Democrats who gathered in front of their neighbors tonight signaled that they were leaning in favor of this candidate more than that one.”

Journalists should avoid the temptation to use whatever happens in Iowa to declare a candidate to be finished or to be anointed. For once, let’s remember that Iowa is just one state with a convoluted, but at least to them, endearing system. Report the facts, include lots of caveats about how Iowa is different from much of the rest of the country and slow your need to know who the nominee will be.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter at @atompkins. 

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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