Too Close to Know

If anyone tells you they know who really won the 2000 Presidential Election, they’re lying to you, lying to themselves, or both. Technically, George W. Bush won Florida, and thus the presidency by 537 votes as per the final recount. But as anyone who was around for the comedy of errors and hanging chads remembers, that was a guess. Not only was it impossible to review punched ballots with any amount of consistency, but a controversial “butterfly” ballot design in Broward County led to a surprising amount of Jewish retirees voting for Pat Buchanan.

When an election is very, very, very close, we’re all just guessing. A combination of tabulation errors, questionable ballots, and odd ballot design will cause uncertainty. There’s the question of whether the certified votes were properly counted, whether the right votes were counted, and sometimes, whether, intentionally or not, ballots were designed in a way that hindered voters exercising their true preference.

We all agree to accept an eventual outcome because someone needs to win, and you can’t re-run a national election. Unless you’re in Israel, where they can apparently do this every couple of months. But they have fewer citizens than Los Angeles County. You definitely can’t have a re-do on a caucus or primary. There’s a schedule, and sending everyone back to Iowa would be ridiculous. Plus, it’s not the same on a re-do. The voters have a different set of information now.

In 2000, you couldn’t just call it a tie. There was no constitutional path for Bush and Al Gore to split the four years. If Florida was removed from the Electoral College, Gore would have won, so a tie wouldn’t serve as a tie. But we can consider Iowa a tie if we choose. The convention delegate allocation is the same, regardless of who the “winner” is. Those were distributed by a separate labyrinthine policy.

There are no less than five possible ways to declare a 2020 Iowa winner. I’m not even counting the distribution of official convention delegates, which is a sixth measure and also uncertain at the time of typing. We’re also holding aside various irregularities that could change the count on at least one of these five measures. Bernie Sanders is ahead in three. Pete Buttigieg leads in two.

#1 First Alignment Popular Vote

This is who showed up at the caucus to vote for each candidate. Kind of. We only have entrance polls done by media for a clean look at that, and they didn’t poll every precinct. If you hate ambiguity, caucuses are not your pal. It’s actually who each voter picked for their initial vote after being lobbied by others to join their group. Of the five measures, this was the one Buttigieg did worst on. It’s not Bernie’s highest number, but it is his largest advantage.

This number will be used less than any of the others. I also think it’s the cleanest way to judge which candidate Iowans thought was best. Fun Fact: By this count, the top five finishers were separated by 3ish point intervals (Sanders 24.8%, Buttigieg 21.3%, Warren 18.4%, Biden 15.0%, Klobuchar 12.7%.) If someone tries to tell you there were distinct tiers here, the math argues otherwise.

#2 Second Alignment Popular Vote

This is what Berners are concentrating on the most. And it’s how he reached his highest percentage (26.6%.) If this count was released in 2016, the same would have held. It’s almost definite Sanders had a lead on Hillary Clinton after this step. His frustration over this number remaining private began the set of 2020 adjustments that ended in infamy.

We do have tiers here. Buttigieg picked up lots of ground from the first alignment to finish at 25.0%. A rung down is Elizabeth Warren at 20.2%. When her team talked about a top three, three tickets out of Iowa, “hey, we kicked Biden’s ass,” this is where they were getting the talking point from. And it’s not absurd.

The next level is Biden (13.7%) and Klobuchar (12.3%.) For what it’s worth, Joe dropped a few more votes here than Amy, indicating he had more trouble reaching viability in various caucuses, even if he got more votes than she did. Some New Hampshire polls have these two similarly close. Should Klobuchar best Biden after getting very close to him in Iowa, you have to wonder how he survives that.

#3 State Delegate Equivalents (using first interpretation of rules)

This is the calculation that led the Buttigieg campaign to estimate they won. He’s at 26.2%, Sanders 26.1%, Warren 18.0%, Biden 15.8%, Klobuchar 12.3%. You can think of these SDEs as the equivalent of the Electoral College. Much like the more familiar conversion we use every 4th November, it slightly favors candidates who do better in rural/less populated places. Both Buttigieg and Biden did, while Sanders, and to a larger extent Warren, had more support in larger caucus precincts in urban areas.

It’s the measure you’ll see when clicking on any of the media outlets reporting caucus results, along with the first two. But this one is displayed most prominently. It’s the rule set the Buttigieg campaign was banking on to overcome not being the first choice of enough Iowans. Between picking up Biden/Klobuchar/Warren voters where they failed to reach viability, and doing well in many of the less populated counties and precincts, he maximized his support and gets to call himself a winner.

You might think this is a bad measure of how he’ll do going forward, where most contests are primaries and Mayor Pete will need to win more votes than his opponents, rather than playing the system better. You might think the campaign’s skill here is a good sign for November, and an indicator he wouldn’t run up the score in the popular vote, while getting blindsided in the Electoral College a la Clinton.

Both arguments are very reasonable.

#4 State Delegate Equivalents (using second interpretation of rules)

The SDE conversion system is hard enough. Unlike the Electoral College, which is winner-take-all everywhere except Nebraska and Maine (and even there, 2 EVs are statewide and the others are winner-take-all in a given congressional district), the SDEs are parceled out in each precinct caucus (of which there were over 1,700 instead of 50 states + D.C.). The precinct leaders had to do math. This was one reason for the notorious app. It would have done the calculations for them after getting raw final alignment inputs.

There were precincts that ended in a tie, where a coin was flipped to determine who would get the extra delegate. Rounding is required. Sometimes one candidate would have 10-15% more voting support than the next, but get the same amount of delegates. If the Electoral College worked like this, it would have been abolished two hundred years ago.

Now go take an Asprin/Advil/Tylenol/Motrin of your choosing. It gets worse.

For 2020, the concept of Satellite Caucuses was introduced. To a positive end. A caucus is fundamentally restrictive. You need to physically show up somewhere (in Iowa at night) and prepare to be there for a couple hours. Many people just can’t participate. So they added overseas satellites for expats. And others in places like Florida for snowbirds. None of these were tremendously populated. It’s not like there’s a giant concentration of Iowans in one town in France.

But they also figured it was important to have a few inside of Iowa, particularly in large cities, to enable voters working night shifts to participate. Earlier in the day on Caucus Monday, satellite caucuses gathered in places like Des Moines. And the Sanders team had a very savvy hack. Unlike regular caucus precincts, where the amount of SDEs (like electoral votes) was pre-determined, the satellite caucus SDE quantity would be determined by the quantity of voters who turned up.

Team Bernie decided to encourage some voters who might have been able to participate in the regular caucus to attend a satellite. They knew there was a cap on how many SDEs they could get from the regular precincts, no matter how well they did. But here, they could expand the available SDEs. And regardless of which technical ruling (#3 or #4) you prefer, it was this method that enabled Sanders to suddenly catch up to Buttigieg Thursday after most all precincts had reported.

The conflict is whether there’s any cap at all on the amount of SDEs that can be earned. As you might figure, given the existing chaos, depends how you read it. And I’m going to spare us all that. If the curiosity is killing you, Google can help. Read one way, Sanders was very smart and almost passed Buttigieg, whose team thought of everything but this. Read the other way, he did pass him, and combined with winning first alignment and final alignment, earned a full sweep of the measures that would logically constitute victory.

#5 Counties Won

People haven’t discussed this one much yet, but when Buttigieg is pressed on his claim of victory, it will start coming up more frequently. I’d almost be willing to include it as a drinking game entry for the debate. As of now, he’s leading in/won 59 of 99 counties. Sanders won 19. Warren 1. Of all the measures, it’s the one with the largest gap. And Mayor Pete’s counties are distributed mostly evenly throughout the state.

It’s a flawed measurement. Short of an Electoral College tie where each state’s House delegation gets a single vote, nowhere in American politics is this a unit of measure. But it’s still significant, and it backs up Buttigieg’s point that he has support that cuts across geography (if not yet ethnicity.) This is also the measure that should scare Team Warren the most. With the exception of Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, she was frequently competitive, but never tops. Outside of Massachusetts, she’s not leading any polls anywhere. The counties of Iowa are a proxy for what she’s staring at in future primaries.

You likely have your own thoughts about who did best or who won after reviewing the possible ways to think about it. Fortunately for Buttigieg, the media is running with #3 most frequently. Berners are most fixated on #2 and think #4 is the best way to deal with SDEs, thus, in their minds, he won all three of the ways that were supposed to count for something. I think most any voter who’s truly considering Buttigieg figures he did well enough in Iowa, regardless of whether he really “won.”

It’s hard to think of an election as a matter of opinion instead of fact. But this one is. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last.

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