Here’s How ‘The Winner’ Will Be Declared in Iowa’s Democratic Caucuses

Think you know Iowa? Take AP quiz before Monday's caucuses
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Democratic Party has determined that “the winner” of Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucuses will be the candidate who receives the most statewide delegate equivalents when all the results from the 1,678 regular caucuses and 87 satellite caucuses attended by an estimated 170,000 to 200,000 Iowa Democrats have been reported by around 11:00 p.m. central time Monday night.

But three other sets of results will be reported after the caucuses end. All told, there will be four separate results reported:

  1. The statewide first alignment results
  2. The statewide second alignment results
  3. The statewide delegate equivalents to the county conventions (the top finisher here will be “the winner.”)
  4. The pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

At stake are Iowa’s 41 delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, less than one percent of the 4,750 voting delegates who will be authorized to cast a ballot for the party’s nominee for president.

The caucuses on Monday select about 11,402 county convention delegates who will, in turn, on March 21, at 99 separate county conventions, elect approximately 2,100 state convention delegates. Those delegates, in turn, meet to select the 41 national convention delegates — 14 on a statewide basis and 27 from among the four Congressional Districts in the state.

It is possible that one candidate, on a statewide basis, will place at the top of the pack in all four of these measurements of caucus night performance.

But it is also possible that the candidate who finishes first in the count of statewide delegate equivalents to the county conventions could finish behind other candidates in the three other measures of results. In theory, a different candidate could finish at the top in all four measures of caucus night results.

To make matters even more complicated–theoretically–a candidate who fails to finish first under any of these four measures will have surpassed that candidate’s expectations going into the caucuses–a very real possibility when so many voters have reported themselves as “undecided” on the eve of the caucuses and when as many as four separate candidates have registered support of at least 15 percent of the likely caucus participants.

A candidate who surges in the last ten days of the caucus campaign may be the one who grabs headlines, as the campaign moves to New Hampshire with a “momentum” created by results that did not include a front-runner status as to any of these four measures.

Over the more than four decades in which the Iowa caucuses have been held, a strong showing by a Democratic candidate in Iowa–either by objectively winning more delegates than other candidates, or by substantially “beating expectations,” gives a positive bounce to that candidate’s prospects in the primary election contest that immediately follows in New Hampshire eight days later.

Any such complicated, blurring outcome, however, could likely take the steam out of the sails of the winner declared based on the number of statewide delegate equivalents.

The 2020 caucuses are the first time these first alignment results will be publicly reported.

The Iowa caucuses are unlike primary contests where the winner is determined by the simple measure of who received the most votes cast in a secret ballot conducted during a 12 hour period in which registered voters come to their local polling place, cast their ballot, then go on with their business for the day.

Depending on the size of the lines waiting to vote, casting a primary vote at your local polling location typically takes anywhere from five minutes to one hour.

The caucus process requires a greater commitment of time, and voter preferences are public, rather than private.

The process begins when caucus attendees gather in person on Monday night at a location within their local precinct–typically a school, church, or other public venue. The proceedings at the 1,765 caucuses are scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m. The number of attendees at each precinct caucus can vary from a low of a dozen to a high of 1,000.

Each campaign will have an opportunity for a local representative to give a brief pitch for their candidate. Then caucus attendees form separate groups of supporters for each candidate. The total number of attendees in each group in each caucus is tallied. This is called the first alignment.

The first alignment support for each candidate from the aggregated results for all 1,765 caucuses will be  included in the three sets of results reported by the Iowa Democratic Party around 11:00 pm central time on Monday.

As many as a dozen candidates will likely have some first alignment support. Raw numbers of attendee support for these dozen candidates should total somewhere between 170,000–the turnout in 2016 – and 200,000, which would be a healthy increase over 2016.

After the first alignment results are determined at each caucus, the winnowing process begins.

Any candidate whose group in the first alignment had fewer than 15 percent of the total attendees in a caucus is eliminated from participating in the second alignment. Attendees whose first alignment candidate has been eliminated can continue to participate in the process, but only by joining a group for a candidate who had more than 15 percent support in the first alignment, and has not been eliminated.

The second alignment support for each candidate from the aggregated results for all 1,765 caucuses will also be included in the three sets of results reported by the Iowa Democratic Party around 11:00 pm central time Monday.

The number of candidates who have reported support in the second alignment is likely to drop to six to nine. There may be some, but not much drop of total attendee support totals from those announced in the first alignment.

The raw results of the second alignment statewide, however, are not the basis for declaring a winner.

The next step is to take the raw results from the second alignment and determine the allocation of state delegate equivalents to the county conventions, the next step in the delegate selection process.

Second alignment results in a caucus for a precinct that historically has had a high general election Democrat turnout are weighted more heavily than a precinct that has historically had a low general election Democrat turnout.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was declared the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses when she won 701 state delegate equivalents (49.9 percent), Bernie Sanders won 697 state delegate equivalents (49.6 percent), and Martin O’Malley won 8 state delegate equivalents.

In 2016, neither the first alignment results nor the second alignment results were reported.

The fourth and final set of results reported will be an estimated of the number of pledged delegates resulting from the state delegate equivalent calculation. In 2016, for instance, when Iowa had 44 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, the New York Times reported on caucus night that 23 of these delegates were estimated to be pledged to Hillary Clinton while 21 were pledged to Bernie Sanders.

Should a single candidate finish in the top of all four measurements coming out of Monday’s Democrat caucuses in Iowa, that candidate will be able to claim the mantle of front-runner for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, at least until the results of the New Hampshire primary on February 11 start rolling in.

If more than one candidate claims the top spot in any of these four measurements, however, the results from Iowa’s caucuses on Monday will serve to muddy the waters somewhat.

Candidates, however, have always focused on “getting a ticket out of Iowa,” and the number of candidates who get a ticket out of Iowa this year will likely be anywhere from three to five. The four different measures of success enhances the likelihood that a greater number of candidates get a ticket out of Iowa in 2020 than was the case in 2016.

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