WTF Is An Iowa Caucus Anyway?

You know how at the county fair you and your family of God-fearing Americans line up to place your bets on whichever little pig can run through an obstacle course the fastest, while you sit in the stands eating a corndog and a turkey leg and a fried oreo and a doughnut and a soft-serve ice cream cone? Caucuses are just like that, but at the end of the night, they make the winning pig president. More or less.

Anyway, let's skip the history lesson on WHY IS CAUCUS and move straight to the part you actually care about, which is WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TONIGHT? And also, WHY IS EVERYONE SAYING THIS WILL BE A SHITSHOW? The answer is ANYONE WHO SAYS THEY KNOW IS LYING, and OMG, ALL THE WAYS. Here's how it will go down.

At the outset of the proceedings, everyone at the precinct will shout "Bernie or Bust!" or "Yang Gang!" or "Tucker loves Tulsi!" and this first alignment will be the closest we get to a "popular vote" tally in the Iowa primary. Once they quit hollering, supporters of candidates who didn't reach 15 percent will have one more chance to find another candidate, or remain uncommitted in the second alignment. Everyone whose candidate did reach the 15 percent viability threshold can either go eat a corndog, or try to round up more support from nonviable candidates.

That means in the mythical precinct where Bennet, Yang, Gabbard, Steyer, Patrick, and Klobuchar each took 16.67 percent, everyone would go home and call it a night. But here on Planet Earth, it's a bit more complicated.

That's the latest Emerson poll of Iowa. If this is a precinct, Klobuchar, Warren, Buttigieg, Steyer, Yang, Gabbard, Patrick and Bennet's supporters are all up for grabs, since none of those candidates reached the 15 percent viability minimum. So, it's entirely likely that in the second alignment, Biden could wind up with more delegates, even though Sanders won the first alignment (AKA popular vote).

In that scenario, the deciding factor is which candidate is the second choice of all the non-viable candidates. Morning Consult has a pretty good breakdown on this, and here's a simplistic graphic. But! Bloomberg isn't on the ballot in Iowa, and Klobuchar seems to be "surging" but not to the point of viability, meaning her supporters might well be "kingmakers" at precincts where only three candidates -- likely Sanders, Biden, and either Warren or Buttigieg -- reach viability.

In the Emerson scenario pictured above, would Klobuchar's voters migrate to Biden, or would they move to Warren to push her over into viability? Presumably the Yang Gang moves to Sanders, but maybe the Buttigieg people move to Biden if it looks like their guy isn't reaching viability? There are an infinite number of possibilities spread over Iowa's 1,681 precincts.

And the problem with Emerson and every other poll is that it's giving us a picture of the entire state -- that is, a popular vote -- which is exactly the wrong metric for Iowa, where they're essentially throwing out all the underperformers and running the numbers again in every single precinct.

It's a pretty safe bet that Sanders and Biden will be viable in almost every precinct, since most polls have them running neck and neck. So, let's envision Precinct A, where Buttigieg reaches viability, but Warren does not, and Precinct B where Warren reaches it but Buttigieg falls short. For the sake of clarity, we'll peg Biden and Sanders at 20 percent each, disregard the uncommitteds, and lump all the also-rans into a pile called "Others."

Precinct A

In Precinct A, Warren's supporters commit to her on the first round, and they're in competition for Buttigieg and Klobuchar's "orphans." That means Sanders is probably not going to add appreciably to his original tally, and Biden will pull ahead.

But in Precinct B, it's the exact opposite. If Warren doesn't hit her numbers, and Buttigieg does, then her supporters are likely to give Sanders the edge.

Roughly speaking, if you're Joe Biden, you want Elizabeth Warren to have a good night. And if you're Bernie Sanders, you're hoping Buttigieg is viable in as many precincts as possible. And over almost 1,300 caucuses, the precinct-level variation makes it impossible to predict the raw tallies.

But wait, there's more!

Because that data set is going to get refracted again through the delegate apportionment process, which is where shit is going to get really ugly. Since Iowa is only sending 41 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, each precinct is designated some fractional share of a representative, known as a state delegate equivalent (SDE).

Here's Adams County, Iowa, with a population of roughly 3,686, spread over five precincts. (Note, Adams County doesn't get 3 of 41 Iowa DNC delegates. They get 35 of 11,402 county convention delegates. Obviously!) So if Sanders takes 28 percent of AD1, he walks out with 0.19 SDE. Which is no way to run a railroad!

Via Data Studio

According to FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, the SDE allocation is "based on the number of votes that Hillary Clinton got in the general election in 2016 and that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell got in the 2018 general election." Which ... no, we are not going down that rabbithole. Just take it as a given that each precinct has a fixed number of SDE's, and a huge turnout won't change that. Moreover, because rural voters have a greater disparity between caucus and general election turnout -- that is, the percentage of people who skip the caucus but show up in November is greater in rural areas -- rural caucus precincts are more heavily weighted on a per-person basis.

Here's how FiveThirtyEight elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley described it in yesterday's politics chat:

So if you get particularly high turnout at a precinct near, say, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Johnson County, that precinct's value for delegate purposes is already set based on a calculation determined by the 2016 presidential and 2018 gubernatorial Democratic vote share in that precinct. So if Sanders gets like 500 of 600 voters there, it might have the same delegate value as Biden dominating in a different precinct with 150 voters if they are worth the same number of state delegate equivalents. In the 2016 caucuses, for instance, Hillary Clinton swept all 1.6 SDEs in a Waterloo, Iowa, precinct that had 141 people show up, while Sanders got 1.6 of 1.8 SDEs in an Iowa City precinct that had 646 participants. We can't know what the "popular vote" was in those precincts in 2016 — that's available for the first time this year — but the delegate value for the two candidates was pretty much the same, even though one precinct had far higher turnout.

Brass tacks, Biden's supporters tend to be more rural, so, even though his ground game in Iowa is reportedly shit, the overweighting of rural caucus precincts might push him ahead in the delegate tallies. In prior years, this information wouldn't be publicly aggregated. But for the first time, the DNC will be producing the first alignment tally (closest to a popular vote), the second alignment tally (without the nonviables), and the SDE tally for the official winner.

Meaning there is a non-trivial possibility that the candidate who walks out with the most SDE's will not be the same person who won the most support in either the first or second alignment. And if that happens, look for great howls of blame for the #RIGGEDDNC, rather than a recognition that this is a clumsy attempt to retrofit the fundamentally undemocratic caucus process to the 21st century.

Hey, remember the conspiracy theory free-for-all over the coin toss after the 2016 Iowa caucus? Wasn't that awesome? Can't wait to do that again, right?

[FiveThirtyEight / WaPo / FiveThirtyEight, again]

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Liz Dye

Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.


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