- The Iowa caucuses were an absolute mess this year, with a slew of issues causing a delay in results.
- Based on preliminary results, Sen. Bernie Sanders seemed set to win the most votes, but was still on par with on behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in terms of percentage of delegates.
- Because of this, many observers announced that Buttigieg had a slight lead.
- Based on the way the Iowa caucuses work, a candidate can win the most votes and still lose overall by not obtaining the most delegates.
- To put it another way, early results signalled Sanders was winning the popular vote, while Buttigieg was winning in terms of what’s essentially Iowa’s equivalent to the Electoral College.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Iowa caucuses are an extremely confusing political event that occur every four years, kicking off the primary season for major political parties in US presidential elections.
In 2020, the caucuses have been especially bewildering due to some changes in rules by the Iowa Democratic Party, and a delay in results linked to a new app used to report precinct results.
The Iowa Democratic Party has overseen a fiasco, with the first batch of results emerging a day after the caucus and a winner still unclear days after the event. Myriad issues – ranging from a flooded phone line, a bum app, and tabulation errors – have plagued the caucuses.
Based on the preliminary results, Sen. Bernie Sanders appears poised to have the most votes by far, but was still on par with or behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in terms of percentage of delegates – and therefore many observers declared Buttigieg had a slight lead.
Here’s the raw vote data from the final alignment:
However, here’s the data when converted into State Delegate equivalents:
Much like the presidential or general election, a candidate can win the most votes and still lose the Iowa caucuses by not obtaining the most delegates. In other words, initial results indicated Sanders was winning the popular vote, while Buttigieg was winning in terms of what’s essentially Iowa’s equivalent to the Electoral College.
At the end of the day, winning delegates in Iowa is more important than winning votes, just like winning states with a high number of electors in the general election (to break the threshold of 270 necessary for victory) is more important than winning the most votes (as Hillary Clinton and her supporters found in 2016).
This is due to the way in which the votes are counted in the Iowa caucuses.
The maths and the process surrounding this is convoluted, but here’s the gist: Caucus participants are not directly casting ballots for their candidates of preference; they’re technically voting for delegates that are allocated proportionally to candidates based on the percentage of the vote they receive.
The number of delegates a candidate earns in the caucuses are known as state delegate equivalents, which are translated into a proportional percentage of the pledged delegates sent by Iowa and its congressional districts to the Democratic party’s nominating convention (where the party picks its presidential nominee).
Those state delegates are assigned to precincts well before any voters actually show up, which means there can be a lot of variance between the number of voters at a precinct and the overall proportional percentage of state delegates they vote on. In fact, a strong turnout in a precinct actually diminishes the value of any given caucusgoer’s vote compared to another caucusgoer in a precinct with poor turnout. In the 2016 caucus, the most populated county in Iowa had an average of one state delegate for every 154 voters. In rural Fremont County, the ratio was one state delegate for every 45 caucusgoers.
This means that a voter in a rural area can be worth three times as much as a voter in Des Moines, skewing the map in favour of candidates who are unlike Sanders (who enjoys high support in younger, more liberal cities) and towards candidates like Buttigieg (who enjoys high support among more conservative white voters).
Here’s what Insider’s polling found:
In some cases, precincts with relatively similar numbers of delegates will have completely different levels of voter turnout, but this will not impact the number of delegates up for grabs at the end of the night – it’s all predetermined.
Lastly, Iowa’s 41 delegates aren’t assigned at a state level alone, as 27 come from its four congressional districts. This means overperforming in one congressional district compared to another can result in a gain of delegates depending on how the maths shakes out, adding a further complication and further rewarding rural areas.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.