Chaos, Confusion, and the Iowa Caucus

The first nominating contest of 2020 was off to a rocky start

Nearly two weeks ago, on Monday, Feb. 3, the first nominating contest of the 2020 primary season was held. It began at 7:00 p.m. in Iowa, as 176,000 people across the state gathered in school gyms and other community centers to support their preferred candidates. Despite the confusion already associated with the process of ‘caucusing,’ no one could have predicted the multi-day chaos that would result.

What is a caucus?

Caucusing is a complicated process. While the majority of states hold primary elections where voters simply turn in a marked ballot at a polling center or by mail, some states choose instead to hold caucuses, which are essentially party meetings held concurrently in many districts across the states. Voters arrive and declare their support for a candidate by standing in a designated section for the “first alignment.” If their preferred candidate receives less than 15 percent of the vote, they must switch to a “viable” candidate, or group together with another non-viable group in order to reach 15 percent or more at the so-called “final alignment.” These numbers are then translated into state delegate equivalents (SDEs), which are reported and then translated into pledged delegate counts after the SDE results have been recorded for the entire state. Because the process is so time-consuming, and because voters cannot submit an absentee ballot for a caucus that they are unable to attend, caucus turnouts tend to be lower than primary election turnouts. 

What happened in Iowa?

Since 1972, Iowa has held the first election of the presidential primaries, when they split the district and state caucuses in order to reduce the power of party leaders in the caucus process. Because of this place in the primary calendar, Iowa sees a disproportionate amount of the presidential hopefuls in the months and weeks leading up to the caucus. The winner of the Iowa caucus has won the Democratic nomination in 7 out of 10 contested races going back to 1972, although only Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have gone on to win the presidency from there.

Historically, only SDEs have been recorded and published, not the vote count in the first and second alignments of caucus-goers. After Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Iowa caucuses by only 0.3 percent of the SDEs and with some reports of miscounted votes spread on social media, the Iowa Democratic Party decided to rethink how results were published. Unlike in a primary, of course, raw ballot counts do not exist for caucuses. So, this year — for the first time ever — precincts were asked to record and report the first and final alignments as well as the SDEs. 

A new smartphone app for recording caucus results was commissioned only a few months prior to the caucuses by the Iowa Democratic Party. Prior to election night, however, it had not been tested statewide, and while training in how to use the app was available for caucus chairs prior to February 3, not everyone participated. Even those who did, faced login difficulty and connectivity errors while using the app, and some results ended up not transmitting properly. Some caucus chairs also chose not to use the app at all and instead called in their results to an understaffed hotline. The increase in reporting detail — three sets of results instead of one — likely played a role in the confusion as well. These issues snowballed into a disaster that left many wondering if Iowa should keep its influential place as the first presidential primary contest in future elections. Meanwhile, not all results were released on election night and most only became available as they trickled in over the course of the next week. 

As this paper went to press on Feb. 12, results from 100 percent of the districts placed Pete Buttgieg with 26.2 percent of the vote, in the lead over Bernie Sanders by 0.1 percent of the vote and 2 SDEs. Elizabeth Warren came in third, with 18 percent of the vote, and Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar fourth and fifth with 15.8 and 12.3 percent, respectively. However, a closer look has revealed what appear to be unintentional inconsistencies in the vote tallies. Because the margin of victory for Buttigieg is so narrow, even minor errors could change the overall winner of the state — and not all of the inconsistencies appear to be minor. As of Wednesday, Feb. 12, the Associated Press is unable to declare a winner.

New Hampshire

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, New Hampshire held its own primary elections. Unlike the Iowa caucus(es), the New Hampshire primaries are true primaries — people vote by paper ballot either in person in polling locations or by mail. This makes counting and reporting election results much simpler, and perhaps because of this, there were no major issues with the New Hampshire elections. Sanders (25.7 percent) beat Buttigieg by 1.3 percent, with Klobuchar making a surprising third place with 19.8 percent, followed by Warren with 9.2 percent and Joe Biden with 8.4 percent. New Hampshire does not award pledged delegates to candidates with less than 15 percent of the vote.

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