What's Happening With the Iowa Caucuses? You'll Be Sorry You Asked

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What's Happening With the Iowa Caucuses? You'll Be Sorry You Asked

In order to understand what’s happening with the Iowa caucus results, approximately 64 hours after we were supposed to know who won, you need to talk to the kind of freak who was in Iowa, spent caucus night in a state of incredulity gradually giving way to fury, yet has stayed up until 3 a.m. as recently as last night tracking the final precincts as they trickled in. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for me, I am that freak. Still, despite the fact that you may find some enlightenment about the shambolic, ongoing clusterf*ck in the text that follows, it is also a perfectly sane reaction to simply move on with your life. The very short version is that Bernie Sanders has won the popular vote (by two different measures), and even now the “state delegate equivalent” count, which is like the electoral college in the sense that it over-values rural voters for no good reason, is still up in the air. The other basic thing to know is that Pete Buttigieg, by declaring victory with absolutely no evidence on Monday night, probably gave himself a boost in next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, regardless of how it all pans out.

Now, journey with me into the weeds…

For most of Wednesday, as the precinct results came in slowly, the pattern was clear: Sanders was going to win the first vote, when caucus-goers express their preference, and the re-alignment vote, when the caucus-goers from nonviable groups are allowed to join others. The re-alignment vote was closer—Buttigieg gained more than Sanders did—but still decisively for Bernie. The state delegate count, however, favored Buttigieg, and though Sanders chipped away throughout the day, it didn’t seem like he’d catch him before 100% of precincts had reported.

Then something dramatic happened Wednesday night—the results from the satellite caucuses began to pour in. There are four satellite regions within Iowa (and a collection of out-of-state satellites) where voters who couldn’t make caucus night could still participate during the day, and the Sanders campaign put more time and effort into organizing them than any other campaign. This Jacobin feature details how in one case they canvassed outside of a pork factory and managed to turn out immigrant workers. Here’s how one satellite location looked on Monday afternoon, with 14 of 15 caucus-goers supporting Sanders:

When the results from the satellites came in, Sanders saw a significant late jump that erased most of Buttigieg's delegate lead. Outlets like the Times didn't have the satellites built into their models, and it precipitated a dramatic shift in the odds:

As of last night, with 97% of all precincts reporting, Buttigieg held a state delegate equivalent lead of four—an impossibly slim margin. What's more, one of the four satellite caucus groupings had yet to report results, which meant that if that one followed the pattern of the others, Sanders could experience another big jump.

Now here's where it gets fun—there's a rule within the caucus about how many delegates a satellite group can have, and it depends on turnout. In this case, if 600 or fewer caucus-goers in the IA-1 satellite precincts turned out, they would have 5.6 state delegates. If it was more, that number would double. MSNBC's Steve Kornacki was on the case:

Along with that satellite area, there are roughly 40 more precincts to report, and though nobody knows for sure how they'll look when they come in, the Times estimates that they'll favor Buttigieg slightly. In other words, the turnout in the satellite caucus—whether it tops 600 or not—could be decisive. Daniel Nichanian, who has been doing yeoman's work on Twitter, thinks it seems unlikely:

What's more, there's some debate about whether the Iowa Democratic Party has even counted the satellite delegates correctly:

Which brings us to Thursday, when we've been waiting all day for the final precincts to be posted. Just after noon, Tom Perez, head of the DNC, called for a full recanvassing of the entire state:

This immediately kicked the conspiracy theories into gear, the most prominent of which was that Perez had indication that Bernie would overtake Buttigieg with the final three percent of precincts and was trying to stall:

Then, Iowa Democratic chair Troy Price released a surprise statement indicating they were going to keep counting the last precincts:

Finally, if you’re not sick of the entire drama, there was one final twist on Thursday when the Times reported that there are multiple inconsistencies and errors, of all kinds, in how dozens of precincts were reported, calling the entire process into question.

In conclusion, here’s what we know as of Thursday afternoon: Bernie Sanders won the popular vote.

And that’s it. It’s becoming clear that we’ll probably never know who won the state delegate count, and even when the Iowa Democrats and the DNC certify a final result, there will be no good reason to trust what they say. The story of the week is rank incompetence and the alienation of the voter, and the only silver lining to the whole mess will be if the very concept of the Iowa caucus is so damaged that we never have to suffer through this again.

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