Following the Primaries: Complicated Caucuses

The US primaries are now in full swing with both Iowa and New Hampshire already having their say, and the Nevada Democratic caucus scheduled for next Saturday week. In last week’s article I explained how caucuses and primary elections differ but how they both elect delegates who pledge to vote for their chosen candidate at the party’s national convention. This winning candidate then goes on to run in the presidential election in November.

This week, I will take a closer look inside the perplexing caucus system by focusing on Iowa’s Democratic caucus results.

Grab a coffee and sit down. This could get messy.

To begin, I will give a brief description of how the Democratic caucuses were run in Iowa – this process differs from party to party and from state to state.

Registered Democrats gathered in a public space and votes were counted by people dividing into groups in support of their chosen candidate. In each caucus, if a candidate didn’t receive at least 15% of the total vote on the first count they were considered inviable and their voters were free to cross the room to support one of the other candidates. (This is somewhat similar to Ireland’s single transferable voting system.) County delegates were then allocated to each remaining candidate on a proportional basis. For example, if 100 voters came to a caucus and of them, 14 or fewer voted for O’Malley, then O’Malley would win zero delegates out of that precinct and his 14 supporters could then choose to support either Clinton or Sanders (they could also go home uncounted). The county delegates are then divided among Clinton and Sanders based on their share of votes.

Sounds simple enough right? Let’s dive deeper.

Iowa is divided into 99 counties and subsequently into 1,683 precincts. A caucus took place in each of these precincts.

Throughout these precincts there are a total of 11,065 Democratic county delegates that were allocated to the candidates. However, you may have noticed that the results of the overall state caucus that have been reported by the media give the results in ‘state delegate equivalents’ (SDEs) and national delegates. These are actually predicted results that will not be officially awarded until after the county, congressional, and state conventions – which take place throughout March and April – and filter the 11,065 county delegates down to 44 national convention delegates.  Are you still with me?

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Source: The Washington Post


For example, this image from The Washington Post, shows that Clinton has been awarded 701 SDEs which has been calculated through ratios of county to state delegates. This state delegate number then predicts that she will win 23 delegates in the national convention. The media are ultimately publishing results from conventions that have not yet happened.

To make matters more complicated there are also eight unpledged delegates known as ‘superdelegates’ who go straight to the national convention from Iowa and can vote for whichever candidate they choose. Politico have allocatd six of these superdelegates to Hillary Clinton and left two uncommitted, while The New York Times show only two uncommitted delegates, leaving six unaccounted for. Surely if they are unpledged delegates they should not be awarded to either candidate?

It was reported in many news outlets that in a number of Iowa precincts, delegate allocations were awarded using coin tosses. This was apparently due to inconsistencies in voter numbers. Some media publications, including The Guardian, reported that Clinton won six out of six coin tosses (a probability of 1.56 per cent). However, others such as CNN reported that Sanders won five and Clinton won one. CNN also reported that there are no official records of how many coin tosses occurred and that many of them rely on anecdotal information.

In saying all this, most media reports have concluded that these coin tosses would not affect the overall state results, as one county delegate – after the county, congressional and state conventions occur – will equal 0.009 national delegates. But if there are no records of how many actually occurred, is it accurate to conclude that they don’t make a difference?

After conducting my research for this article, a number of questions occurred to me. Why are there no official, detailed reports by the Democratic party from the individual caucuses? Afterall, this is part of a system that is used to elect one of the most powerful people in the world. Why waste time, money, resources and manpower holding three layers of conventions when the reported results have already predicted their outcomes? And why do these parties insist on still using the middle-age caucus system in some states and a simple ballot election in others?

Hopefully in the coming weeks and months I can find the answers to these questions. I’m in too deep to stop now. Watch this space.


(Photo: Phil Roeder. Source: Flickr).


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