Why Are There Different Estimates for the Results in Iowa?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 4 2012 5:07 PM

The Difficulty of Determining Delegates

Why are news organizations reporting different results from the Iowa caucuses?

Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney
Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney

Photographs by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mitt Romney won Tuesday’s Iowa Republican caucus, sort of. All news organizations report that the former Massachusetts governor defeated second-place Rick Santorum by eight votes, but they don’t seem to agree on the exact number of delegates that will be awarded to each candidate. According to CNN’s initial estimate, Romney, Santorum, and Paul would each receive seven of Iowa’s 25 delegates, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry netting two each. The Associated Press, on the other hand, predicted that Romney would get 13 delegates, and Santorum 12. Why is it so hard to calculate Iowa’s delegate totals?

Because the popular vote has nothing whatsoever to do with delegate selection. It’s best to think of Tuesday’s GOP caucuses as two different votes with two different purposes. In one, Republicans voted for their favorite candidate for president. That’s the vote Mitt Romney won by a razor-thin margin, and it’s the result that will have the most practical significance on the campaign going forward. The winners get a boost in fundraising and media attention, while candidates who do poorly, like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, can get knocked out of the race. (If they could only manage 5 or 10 percent in Iowa, what would their chances be in the rest of the country?) The vote, however, has no direct impact on how many Iowa delegates will vote for any given candidate at the party’s national convention in August.

Delegates are selected in a different vote, held at the same meeting after the presidential poll. At each precinct’s caucus last night, political enthusiasts volunteered to represent their peers at the county caucuses, which will be held in March. The volunteers don’t necessarily offer themselves as supporters of any given candidate, although some do. Others just express an interest in becoming a delegate, and their neighbors give them the go-ahead. They are free to vote however they like at the county caucuses, where the delegates from each precinct will select who among themselves will continue on to the district and state caucuses.

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Under ordinary circumstances, the party’s eventual nominee becomes clear long before the national convention, so it doesn’t matter if the delegates choose not to vote in accordance with the results of the January poll.

It’s not clear how or why media organizations estimate delegate totals after the vote. The practice may arise from confusion between the Republican and Democrat caucus processes. In the latter, Iowa Democrats apportion delegates to the county conventions based on each candidate’s share of the vote in the precinct caucuses. The delegates aren’t technically bound to stick with the candidate they’re supposed to represent, but there is a somewhat stronger link between the presidential preference poll and the delegate selection process.

Having dedicated delegates, even if they’re not legally bound to you, gives middle-of-the-pack Democratic candidates a certain amount of power that their Republican counterparts don’t enjoy. In 2008, for example, John Edwards won 14 delegates in the Iowa precinct caucuses in January. Even though he had dropped out of the race by the time of the county caucuses, he was able to dangle his delegates in an attempt to influence the surviving candidates’ policies.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Donna Hoffman of the University of Northern Iowa and Nicole Sizemore of the Republican Party of Iowa.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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