The Iowa Democratic caucus was a mess. The results took days to release and, as the New York Times reports, they were “riddled with errors and inconsistencies.” Volunteers administering some caucus sites may have failed to enforce recently changed rules and awarded the incorrect number of state delegate equivalents (SDEs) to each candidate. The tangle of human and technological failures surrounding the process has been attributed to everything from incompetence to conspiracy to unconscious bias.
The most important facts, however, are not in dispute. Iowa Democrats arrived at their caucus sites and declared their initial preferences — i.e. which candidate they were there to support — and these were recorded as the “first alignment” numbers. Caucus-goers whose candidate didn’t meet the 15 percent threshold at their site were given the opportunity to switch to a different candidate for a “final alignment.” The final alignment numbers were then used to assign each candidate both SDEs (for Iowa’s state-level Democratic convention) and delegates to the national convention.
The first alignment numbers indicate that 42,672 Iowans showed up at their caucus sites to back Bernie Sanders — about six thousand votes more than his next-closest competitor in the eight-candidate field, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. In the final alignment, this massive popular vote margin dropped to a still-healthy 2,500. Other candidates — one of whom, let’s remember, is the former vice president of the United States — trailed far behind.
Simply put, Bernie won.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this victory for democratic socialism in the first vote of 2020 would dominate headlines about the caucus. Shouldn’t pundits be writing searching columns asking themselves how they could have underestimated Senator Sanders so badly? Shouldn’t news coverage finally be moving on from tut-tutting Bernie’s most fervent online supporters to examinations of why his movement of grassroots door knockers has been so successful?
Yet somehow the dominant media narrative has been that Sanders’s popular vote victory — which no one disputes — is irrelevant because he might be behind on SDEs. A Slate article initially headlined “How Pete Won” — it’s since been softened to How Pete Beat Joe — devoted one sentence in passing to Sanders’s “narrow” popular vote victory before enthusing for several paragraphs about Pete’s (possible) lead in the SDE count. (Buttigieg had declared victory on the basis of an unproven SDE lead the night of the caucus. Since then, as more and more information has come in, the SDE margin has shrunk and become less clear.)
When Sanders held a press conference on Wednesday to declare he prevailed thanks to his undisputed edge in the popular vote, mainstream news coverage treated this as — at best — just as presumptuous as Buttigieg’s earlier announcement. Vox, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all used the same argument to undermine Sanders’s victory claim — that victory or defeat in Iowa should be measured in SDEs since this was the metric that was used to declare past winners.
This argument is flawed for at least three reasons.
First, given the tiny number of delegates at stake in Iowa, the contest is important not because of its impact on the eventual vote at the Democratic National Convention, but because the democratic mandate of Iowa caucus-goers creates momentum for the candidate that they choose.
Second, due to recent reforms by the Iowa Democratic Party, SDEs are no longer relevant even to the selection of national convention delegates. As Sanders pointed out in his victory announcement, it used to be possible for delegates at the state convention (who are selected on the basis of SDEs) to vote to allocate more national convention delegates to a candidate than they would have earned on the basis of their final alignment votes. But this is no longer the case.
Finally, the reason the popular vote wasn’t used to declare victory in 2016 and before is that the Iowa Democratic Party didn’t bother to keep track of the statewide popular vote and announce it to the press. Tellingly, the media was still so eager to give at least the appearance of reporting the popular vote that the New York Times and other outlets resorted to multiplying SDEs by one hundred and accompanying this figure with a footnote acknowledging that these weren’t “actual votes cast.” This year the work-around was no longer necessary — so why not simply determine who won and who lost on the basis of who got the most votes?
No matter how much the centrist journalists and opinion-makers may want to obfuscate it, the results were clear. Say it with me: Bernie won.