Why you'll never know who won Iowa.

Politics and policy.
Jan. 16 2004 6:28 PM

The Vanishing

If you liked the Florida recount, you'll love the Iowa caucuses.

Three years ago, the United States was preparing to inaugurate a president who had lost the popular vote. Through a complex delegate-selection process, George W. Bush had parlayed his defeat in the national ballot count into a razor-thin victory in the Electoral College. Even Bush's edge in the delegate tally was in doubt, since a photo finish in the pivotal jurisdiction, Florida, required an official recount that was never systematically conducted or completed.

There's a very good chance it's about to happen all over again.

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This time, the vote isn't national or final, but it will go a long way toward determining the alternative to Bush in November 2004. The vote will take place in Iowa Monday night. More than 100,000 Democrats will go to precinct caucuses to select a nominee for president. Which candidate will get the most votes that night? If the race remains close, you'll never know.

If you like the Electoral College, you'll love the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Here's how they work. You meet in a room with all the other registered Democrats in your precinct who decide to show up. It can take hours. First you have to choose local party officers and sit through a lot of talk about party activities. Then the caucus chair asks everybody to express their preferences among the presidential candidates. She tells the Howard Dean people to stand in this corner, the Dick Gephardt people in that corner, the John Kerry people in the other corner, etc. There's also a corner for "uncommitted." You go to your corner. The chair counts how many people are in each group. That's the raw vote.

If you're in the Gephardt corner, you can probably stay there. But if you're in the Dennis Kucinich corner, look out. The party has a "viability" rule: If your group doesn't add up to a sufficient percentage of the total vote in the room—at least 15 percent, but it can go higher, depending on various factors—the chair will declare your group nonviable. Now you have to choose which of the viable candidates you prefer as a second choice. You go stand in that corner. Other Kucinich supporters (and Wes Clark supporters, and supporters of any other nonviable candidate) go to other corners, depending on whom they prefer. The chair counts again. That's the realigned vote.

Next the chair translates this vote count into a delegate count. Every viable group gets at least one delegate. The bigger your group, the more delegates you can earn. But there are two catches. First, the number of delegates to be distributed in the room depends on how many Democrats voted in your precinct in the most recent gubernatorial and presidential elections. If you're new in town, and the turnout in your precinct was lousy four years ago, your vote effectively counts less than it would have if you'd moved to a high-turnout precinct. Second, if your group is bigger than another group in the room, that doesn't guarantee you'll get more delegates. Let's say the chair has six delegates to distribute, and there are four viable groups. That leaves two extra delegates, which will probably go to the two biggest groups. If you're in the third-biggest group, and you've got more people than the fourth group does, tough luck. You each get a delegate, and that's that.

The precinct chair phones the county Democratic Party and reports how many county delegates have been awarded to each candidate or to "uncommitted" in your precinct. The chair also calculates how many state delegates (the über-delegates who will be chosen by the county delegates) each candidate would probably get based on his number of county delegates. That's the delegate count.

On caucus night, the Iowa Democratic Party will release the delegate count. Here's when the party will release the raw vote count and the realigned vote count: Never. The party won't compile or even record them, except as a temporary step in most precincts so that the caucus chair can determine how many delegates each candidate gets. The party doesn't want raw votes compiled and released, because it wants the caucuses to be a collaborative activity, not a tally of individual preferences. That's all well and good, if you like the party's communitarian version of democracy. But if you want to know how many voters stood up for John Edwards, you're out of luck.

This wasn't a problem four years ago, because Al Gore thumped Bill Bradley in the Iowa delegate count by a 2-1 margin. It was a two-man race, and Gore had clearly won. In 1996, Bill Clinton faced no real opposition. In 1992, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was such a prohibitive favorite that other Democrats skipped the caucuses. To create a dangerously high risk that the winner of the delegate count isn't the winner of the raw vote, you need two things: a big field, so that there will be plenty of nonviable groups to redistribute at the precinct caucuses, and a close race.

You have to go all the way back to 1988 to find an Iowa Democratic presidential contest in which both of those factors applied. What happened that year? Gephardt beat Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., by four percentage points in the state delegate count. Did Gephardt win the raw vote? A media consortium called the News Election Service said he did, by three percentage points. But four months later, an article revealed that the NES had reported vote counts from only 70 percent of the caucuses and had botched so many of those that its numbers couldn't be trusted. A separate caucus-night projection by NBC News, aborted and never disclosed on air, had Gephardt leading by only half a percentage point. Given the closeness of the race, there was no way to know whether, when Iowans stood up to be counted, Gephardt got the most votes.

This year, the two risk factors have returned with a vengeance. The field is bigger than in 1988, and the race is closer. The latest Iowa polls have the top four candidates—Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards—within the margin of error. The NES, which tried to count the raw vote in 1988, is gone. Here's the system the media have created to replace the NES: Nothing. Plenty of reporters will attend caucuses, but nobody is systematically reporting the raw vote, or even the realigned vote. Some folks at the TV networks seem to think the Associated Press is reporting the raw vote. That's news to the AP.

If the "winner" anointed by the media is determined by the delegate count rather than the raw count, who's likely to get screwed? Do the math. Edwards is hovering just above 15 percent in most statewide surveys. That means that in a lot of precincts, his supporters are likely to fall just below the viability threshold and be disbanded, earning zero delegates. Dean could be shortchanged by the turnout-based allotment of delegates to each precinct. If, as advertised, Dean brings in people who had previously given up on voting, the low turnout caused by their absence from the last election in that precinct will diminish the number of delegates they can earn in this election, no matter how many of them show up.

The TV networks will have one way to estimate the raw vote: entrance polls. As Democrats enter the caucuses, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International will ask them, among other things, whom they plan to vote for. An official at one network said her organization would use the entrance polls to help project the winner. That's exactly what the entrance polls shouldn't be used for, according to Warren Mitofsky, one of the executives who's supervising them. But absent a raw vote count, it would be surprising if network analysts responsible for projecting the winner didn't look at the entrance polls, if only to see whether they matched the delegate count.

Why are the people who conduct the entrance polls nervous about using them to project winners? Look at what happened in Florida in 2000. Networks initially called the state for Gore based largely on exit polls. As the returns came in, the networks realized that the exit polls were off. Then came more returns, and a half-baked official recount, and a court fight, and a contested inauguration, and finally a too-late unofficial media recount that showed Bush winning under some rules and Gore winning under others. Everyone could argue about which ballots should count. But at least there were ballots to look at.

In Iowa, there will be no ballots.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Matt Schiller is a Slate intern.

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