Iowa Caucus — The Count and What it Means

Earlier this week, DocJess posted on the likely delegate count out of the Iowa Caucuses and her experience at a precinct meeting.  In this post, I am going to take a look at the rules of the two parties and what is being counted on February 1.

The Republican Party of Iowa has each precinct take a presidential preference vote on a secret ballot.  As the precinct is counting those votes, the precinct caucus moves on to other business including the election of delegates to the county convention.    As in past years, the election of delegates to the county convention is without regard to presidential preference.  Similarly, at the county convention, the election of delegates to the congressional district convention is without regard to presidential preference.

In past years, this process allowed candidates who had a good organization to get their supporters elected at the congressional district and state conventions to the national convention slots.  While this still might happen this year (with significant effects if the national convention takes more than one ballot or some candidates release their delegates), the Republican Party changed the national rules to bind delegates to the presidential preference votes on the first ballot.  Even if a delegate attempts to cast a vote that differs from the presidential preference vote, the secretary of the convention must record the delegation’s vote as being consistent with the preference vote.

Iowa has 15 at-large delegates to the Republican Convention, and each Congressional District has three delegates.  In addition, there are three automatic delegates.  The way that I read Iowa’s rule, all thirty delegates are allocated based on the statewide results (what that means for the actual election of delegates is unclear).  To clearly qualify for delegates, a candidate needs 3.3%.  Under the rules, a fractional delegate of 0.49 or less is rounded down and a fractional delegate of 0.51 is rounded up.  However, if the rounding rules do not result in a total of 30 delegates, the presumptive break is moved up (if the rounding rules end up with 31 or more delegates) or down (if the round rules end up with 29 or fewer delegates) until the fractional cut line allocates exactly 30 delegates.   Based on Real Clear Politics running average of polls, if the Caucus were held today, the delegate allocation would be as follows:  Trump 8; Cruz 8; Rubio 4; Carson 3; Uncommitted 2; Bush 1; Christie 1; Huckabee 1; Kasich 1; Fiorina 0; Santorum 0; and Gilmore 0.

As Doc Jess described, the Democrats do things differently than the Republicans.  The Democrats do not take or report an initial preference vote from each precinct.  Instead, voters stand (or sit) with different groupings for different candidates.  In most precincts, there will probably be four initial caucus groupings — a Sanders grouping, a Clinton grouping, an O’Malley grouping, and an uncommitted grouping.  Under both the national rules and the Iowa delegate selection plan, a candidate needs 15% or more to get delegates (not 14.99999%).  In practical terms, in a 47-precinct meeting, a candidate would need the support of 8 attendees, even though 7 attendees would give that candidate 14.89% of the attendees.  (Some precincts elect three or fewer delegates to the county convention.  In a three-delegate precinct, the threshold is 16.67%.  In a two-delegate precinct, the threshold is 25%.  Given the limited number of candidates, it is unlikely that four groupings will be viable in a three-delegate precinct; but you might have three groupings viable in a two-delegate precinct.  The rules are ambiguous about who gets the two delegates in that circumstance.)  If a grouping is not viable, those groups are given additional time to become viable or fort he attendees to move to a viable grouping.  After everyone who wants to move has moved, the delegates to the county convention are then proportionately allocated to the viable groupings which then proceed to elect their delegates.  At the end of the night, the precinct reports the delegate allocation to the state party.  It is the delegate allocation to the county conventions which are then reported as the results of the caucus.

Because the Democrats report the delegate allocation rather than any initial preferences, the results do not accurately report initial preferences in two ways.  First, even though a candidate might have some support in a precinct, if they do meet the viability threshold, they will get 0 delegates.  Currently, under the Real Clear Politics average, the two leading candidates — Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton combine for 89% of the initial preference with Governor O’Malley having approximately 6% of the initial preference.  If those numbers hold up, Governor O’Malley may end up with 1% or less of the delegates due to not being viable in most precincts.  Second, it is likely that at almost every precinct convention, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders will end up with splitting the last delegate.  One candidate will be rounded up, one will be rounded down.

Additionally, as discussed by DocJess, the Democrats do not use the precinct results to bind national convention delegates.  The delegates elected at the precinct are considered to represent the people who supported them at the precinct level.  If something happens between the precinct meeting and the County Convention (March 12) that makes the delegate change their mind on who they support (and in theory, who they think their neighbors support), they can change their minds.  Additionally, at the county conventions, there are the same issues as at the precinct meetings.  A candidate may have won a delegate in some precincts but not have enough county convention delegates to be viable.  If two candidates are viable at the county convention, there will again be some rounding to resolve the last delegate.

It is only at the congressional district conventions (April 30) and state convention (June 18) that delegates will be elected.  Again, there is the potential for delegates to change their minds and that some delegates will support non-viable candidate and have to move to a viable candidate.  Particularly, if the viable candidates are close for the last delegate (either at a congressional district, or for the at-large delegation, or for the pledged party leader delegation), this movement could effect the final delegate count.

To use 2008 as an example, the three top candidates (President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Senator Edwards) won approximately 97% of the delegates to the county conventions.  The supporters of the remaining candidates who made it to the county conventions thus had to switch to one of the top three candidates.  Additionally, by the time of the county conventions, Senator Edwards dropped out and many of his supporters switched their votes.  As a result, Senator Edwards went from a presumptive 14 national convention delegates to a presumptive 6 national convention delegates after the county convention (ultimately winning 7 delegates).  Assuming, that current polling is correct, there will probably only be two viable candidates after the February 1 caucuses, making it easier to use a tentative estimate of national convention delegates, but it will still only be a tentative estimate unlike the Republican delegate count.

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