The caucus change that has Iowa bracing for a hot mess – POLITICO
Think of it as Iowa’s version of the 2016 Electoral College issue: Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump handily in the popular vote total but lost the ultimate battle for electoral votes because of her failure in a handful of key places.
In Iowa, traditionally it’s the delegates that matter. And party leaders here emphasize that shouldn’t change: ultimately the presidential primary contest comes down to who gets the most delegates.
But the disclosure of two vote tallies and one delegate count on the night of the Feb. 3 caucuses — a move made to inject more transparency into the caucus process — is threatening to muddle the narrative coming out of Iowa. Depending on how the numbers are interpreted, there’s a scenario in which more than one candidate could claim a “win.”
Iowa is known for picking winners and losers, but with potentially multiple results, the outcome may not be so clear this time, said Rosemary Schwartz, chair of the Benton County Democratic Party.
“My concern is if the first vote says one thing and the delegate count says another, then what’s reported to the public?” Schwartz said. “What actually comes out of Iowa could become moot.”
The new rules — some of which were designed to satisfy a requirement by the Democratic National Committee — were put in place following the chaotic 2016 Iowa caucuses. The result between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was so close that it prompted infighting in the party and sowed distrust among Sanders supporters who challenged its legitimacy. An autopsy of the caucuses revealed an archaic system that included, at times, an inability to provide accurate head counts in precincts.
Among the changes to the system is the addition of so-called “preference cards,” in which each caucus-goer will fill in their name and the candidate they support. Candidates must win 15 percent support after an initial count to remain viable; if not, the candidate is eliminated. Supporters of eliminated candidates are allowed to flip over their preference cards and choose among the remaining hopefuls before a second, and final, raw vote count. After that, the totals will be calculated and delegates apportioned.
In previous caucus years, only the delegate counts at the end were provided to the media. But this year, Democrats will also be providing the before-and-after raw vote totals, too. The party is expected to release results of each count at the same time.
“This is going to be our most transparent caucus that we ever put out because of the paper trail,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said.
If there’s a repeat of 2016 — when Clinton won 49.8 percent of so-called state delegate equivalents, compared to Sanders’ 49.6 percent — the battle between the candidates to project themselves as the victor could be ugly.
“If any of this stuff is close, their people will just be flaming and lighting each other up and saying there was fraud,” said John Lapp, the Iowa state director for then-Rep. Dick Gephardt during the Missouri congressman’s 2004 president campaign. “I certainly don’t envy the Iowa Democratic Party for trying to tabulate the results.”
But party leaders say the changes, including a system to count heads, a paper trail and disclosure of vote totals, gives Democrats tools they’ve never had, including the ability for parties to order a recount if they meet requirements.
“The thing to remember is this is like ranked choice with two choices. If your first candidate doesn’t get to viability, then they go to the next choice down the line,” Price said. “For us, we don’t declare a winner, we just report out the numbers.”
While the caucuses are still two-and-a-half weeks away, the potential for a messy result is heightened by the razor-thin margins between the candidates in polls. As of late Thursday, the top three candidates in the RealClearPolitics average — Biden, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — were separated by only 2 percentage points, and Elizabeth Warren, in fourth place, was less than 5 points out of first place.
It’s also heightened by expectations of huge turnout. Price said the party has been preparing for turnout to exceed record-breaking numbers in 2008 when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses.
“I think that people need to idle their engines a little bit,” says Penny Rosfjord, an Iowa Democratic Party district chair. “A caucus was never meant to be smooth; it’s kind of a messy process. It’s not a straightforward, check a box and move on.”
A close result on caucus night could even lead to diverging results between the final raw vote and the delegate equivalents on which they’re based at each caucus site. Candidates whose support is more regional, for example, may fail to earn delegates in parts of Iowa even as they run up the raw vote score in others.
“In theory, I don’t expect there’s going to be much difference. In theory, the math should work,” said Jean Hessburg, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party and the current chair of its women’s caucus, who also ran Nevada’s caucuses in 2008.
Price added that while candidates have always spun Iowa caucus metrics in their favor, the ultimate result that matters is the delegate count.
Still, some Iowa Democratic veterans worry that the three different data streams — two first raw vote counts and a final delegate count — will not only confuse voters participating in the caucuses or watching at home, but distort what the caucuses are trying to measure about the candidates.
“The caucuses are not supposed to be about the raw vote totals. They’re supposed to be about delegate equivalency,” Hessburg said. “It is a test of organizing strength precinct-by-precinct. There is a conceptual issue that I worry that gets bungled together — and when you try to compare the two or pull one away from the other, the beauty of the process gets misaligned.”
However, Democratic party leaders say they’ve been training caucus leaders for months. They must undergo online instructions and pass a test before the Feb. 3 caucuses.
Lapp said he expected the campaigns to spin the results in the most favorable light. He cited then-Sen. Joe Lieberman’s claim after the 2004 New Hampshire primary that the Connecticut senator’s fifth-place finish was actually “a three-way split decision for third place.”
The question, Lapp said, was whether the media will grant the initial raw vote any significance, or focus solely on the final delegate totals.
“Candidates are so desperate for any bit of momentum,” said Lapp, now a top Democratic ad-maker, “that they’re going to take any good news and scream it from the rooftops.”
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January 16, 2020 at 08:16AM