AP Explains: Why isn't there a winner of Iowa's Dem caucuses

1010 WINS Newsroom
February 10, 2020 - 1:12 pm

El senador Bernie Sanders de Vermont hace una pausa mientras habla con la prensa durante el juicio al presidente Donald Trump, en el Capitolio, en Washington, el miércoles 5 de febrero de 2020. (AP Foto/Patrick Semansky)

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, how can it be there is still no winner of last week's Iowa caucuses?

Final results of the Democratic caucus were released late Sunday, after the Iowa Democratic Party made a series of corrections to a tally initially delayed by several days. That's not the end of the count, however, as Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign exercised its right Monday to ask the state party to take another look at its math.

Amid those delays in getting the data and after observing irregularities in the results once they did arrive, The Associated Press decided it cannot declare a winner in the first contest to decide the Democratic Party's nominee to challenge President Donald Trump in November.

For the AP to decide not to declare a result a week after balloting ended is highly unusual. Here are some answers to questions about the decision, the context in which it was made and what comes next:

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WHAT'S BEHIND THE AP'S DECISION? AREN'T ALL THE RESULTS IN?

After the Iowa Democratic Party's release of new results late Sunday, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg leads Sanders by a margin of 0.09 percentage points.

That's in the count of what are known as state delegate equivalents, which is the outcome of a caucus AP uses to declare a winner. Buttigieg has two more state delegate equivalents than Sanders, out of 2,152 counted.

Those numbers could yet still change.

Candidates had until 1 p.m. EST on Monday to request a recanvass, and the Sanders campaign did so. A recanvass is not a recount, but a check of the vote count to ensure the results were added correctly. And after that recanvass is complete, the campaigns then have the option to pay for an actual recount.

All of that means it could yet be several days before the results in Iowa are, in fact, final.

And even then, the AP may still be unable to call the race.

“Even when the vote count in Iowa does come to an end, it may not be fully accurate,” said David Scott, a deputy managing editor at AP who oversees the cooperative’s coverage of polling and elections. “We continue to see irregularities in the results provided by the Iowa Democratic Party and unless they are resolved, we will remain unable to call the race.”

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WHY ALL THIS TALK ABOUT DELEGATES? DIDN'T SANDERS WIN THE MOST VOTES?

Unlike a government-run primary election, with secret ballots cast at polling places, the Iowa caucuses are an event run by the Iowa Democratic Party. Iowans gather in high school gyms, public libraries and coffee shops and — in front of neighbors and friends, family and strangers — sort themselves into groups backing each of the candidates.

Until this year, the only results reported from that process was a tally of the number of state convention delegates — or “state delegate equivalents” — awarded to each candidate.

For the first time, the party in 2020 released three sets of results from its caucuses: adding the “first alignment” and “final alignment” of caucusgoers to the number of “state delegate equivalents” each candidate received.

During the caucuses, voters arriving at their caucus site filled out a card that listed their first choice; those results determined the “first alignment.” Caucusgoers whose first-choice candidate failed to get at least 15% of the vote at their caucus site could switch their support to a different candidate. After they had done so, the results were tabulated again to determine the caucus site’s “final alignment.”

Sanders does lead Buttigieg by 3.5 percentage points in the first alignment and 1.5 points on the second alignment.

But the AP has always declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses based on state delegate equivalents, which are calculated from the final alignment votes. That’s because Democrats choose their overall nominee based on delegates.

While the first alignment and final alignment provide insight into the process, state delegate equivalents have the most direct bearing on the metric Democrats use to pick their nominee — delegates to the party's national convention.

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SO WHO GETS THE MOST NATIONAL DELEGATES?

Iowa awards 41 national delegates in its caucuses. As it stands, Buttigieg has 13 and Sanders has 12. Trailing behind are Elizabeth Warren with eight, Joe Biden with six and Amy Klobuchar with one.

The 41st and final delegate from Iowa will go to the overall winner. While the state party said Sunday it belongs to Buttigieg, the caucus won't formally come to an end until Sanders' requested recanvass — and any potential recount to follow — is complete.

For that reason, the AP is not yet allocating that final delegate in its reporting on the results.

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SO WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE COUNT? AREN'T ELECTION CONTROLS IN PLACE?

The reporting of caucus results in Iowa this year was marred by multiple problems: tech issues with the mobile phone app used to collect data from caucus sites, an overwhelming number of calls to the party’s backup phone system and a subsequent delay of several days in reporting the results.

An AP review of the results provided by the Iowa Democratic Party also found numerous precinct results that contained errors or were inconsistent with party rules. For example, dozens of precincts reported more final alignment votes than first alignment votes, which is not possible under party rules. In one, the party's data showed no candidates winning any votes in the first alignment but winning 215 votes in the final alignment.

In other precincts, nonviable candidates received votes in the final alignment, which is also inconsistent with party rules.

Iowa party officials said there are reasons for the discrepancies that would not have changed the number of state delegate equivalents awarded to each candidate. But they didn’t confirm the cause of discrepancies in individual precincts.

There were also a handful of precincts in which officials awarded more state delegate equivalents to candidates than there were available to be won.

The Iowa Democratic Party responded by collecting paper records of the results and checking them against the numbers reported by the volunteers who run individual caucus sites. The results it released Sunday night included the subsequent revisions.

But the updated results largely left in place the issues with the complicated math used to calculate results in place. That's because, party leaders said, fixing the math on the paper records — signed by precinct leader, secretary and representatives of each campaign present — would break the law.

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HAS THE AP NOT CALLED A RACE BEFORE?

Yes, though it is rare. When it does happen, it's usually because a very close race is headed for a recanvass or a recount.

The most notable example was in 2000, when the results of the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore were too close to call at the end of election night. The AP decided not to call the race for either candidate. The ensuing recount dispute eventually reached the Supreme Court, which effectively cleared the way for Bush to become president.

In 2019, the AP declared the election for Kentucky governor as “too close to call” when the election night count ended with now-former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin behind by 5,000 votes out of more than 1.4 million cast. Bevin requested a recanvass of the results, and AP only called the race after he conceded to now-Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat.

The AP does its data-driven race calls every year with the utmost care. With an extensive vote-counting apparatus across the nation, the AP calls close to 7,000 races in a presidential election year. Its race calls are used by media on both sides of the political spectrum and have been regarded for years as highly reliable.

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