This year, the results of the Iowa caucuses will be reported differently. That could create confusion for readers, muddle the outcome and allow multiple candidates to claim victory.
The change has already created an additional challenge for news media organizations: how to project and characterize the outcome of a caucus that will now have four different results.
In the past, there was just one measurement of the outcome in Iowa: the estimated number of state delegates won by each candidate, known as “state delegate equivalents.” Whoever won the most state delegate equivalents was the winner, and that was that. In the 2016 caucuses, Hillary Clinton was declared the winner with 701 state delegate equivalents to 697 for Bernie Sanders.
This year, Iowa Democrats will release more information on the preferences of Iowa caucusgoers. They will show the vote choice of caucusgoers when they initially show up at their precincts. They will also release the tabulated vote count of the so-called final alignment, which happens after caucusgoers who support “nonviable” candidates (usually those with less than 15 percent of the vote) have an opportunity to switch their support to viable ones.
There is no guarantee that one candidate will sweep all of these measures. There’s also no guarantee that the winner by these measures will win the most pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, which for the first time will be bound to the caucus results in Iowa and will therefore be newly available on caucus night as well.
The New York Times will project the winner on the basis of the state delegate equivalency results, as it has in the past. These results are the basis for awarding pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, and the Democratic nominating process is ultimately a contest for pledged delegates. Most other news outlets, including The Associated Press, will do so as well.
The Four Measures
There will be four results on caucus night, each corresponding to a different step in the delegate selection process. All will be available on the Times website, though only the state delegate equivalency results will be used to characterize the winner:
The first alignment. This reflects the first preference of Iowa caucusgoers when they arrive at their precinct. At this point, the votes are tallied for each candidate. For a candidate to remain viable, he or she usually needs at least 15 percent of the vote in a precinct. This is not exactly like a popular vote, but a candidate who fares well by this measure will probably portray it as one.
The state delegate equivalency results. At this point, each precinct selects delegates to county conventions (who later elect delegates to the state convention). The selection of the county delegates is based on the final alignment, but adjusted into so-called state delegate equivalents — the estimated number of delegates each candidate will get at the state convention. Historically, these equivalents are the basis for projecting a winner in Iowa.
The pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The state delegate equivalency results statewide and by congressional district are used to award pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. A candidate needs 15 percent of the state delegate equivalents in a congressional district or statewide to be eligible for pledged delegates.
Could a different candidate win each step? The answer is yes.
A candidate could fare better on second alignment than on the first if he or she is the second choice of the caucusgoers who initially support nonviable candidates.
The same candidate could fall behind in state delegate equivalency, losing out to a person who fares best in precincts with low caucus turnout, typically in rural and older areas. (The number of state delegate equivalents is based on turnout in recent elections, so if a precinct has lower turnout in the caucus relative to those recent elections, a candidate will get more state delegate equivalents per caucusgoer than in a precinct with relatively high caucus turnout.)
And the winner of state delegate equivalents might not win the most pledged delegates in any number of arcane ways, whether because of rounding or because of the 15 percent threshold for earning delegates in a district.
How The Times Will Project a Winner
The Times will characterize the winner of the state delegate equivalency results as the Iowa winner, regardless of whether that candidate wins the other measures.
While there is room for debate, the state delegate equivalency results prevail for a few reasons:
The goal of the Democratic nominating contest is to amass delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Therefore, news media organizations project the winner of nominating contests based on whatever determines pledged delegates. In Iowa, pledged delegates will be awarded based on the state delegate equivalency results, not the other vote counts.
The Iowa Democratic Party’s decision to award pledged delegates based on this measure, rather than the newly available vote tallies, implicitly affirms that the Iowa caucus remains a contest for state delegate equivalents.
Voters and campaigns make decisions under the assumption that Iowa is a contest for state delegates. If the winner were determined on a different basis, the voters and campaigns might behave differently.
For similar reasons, neither the first nor the final alignment represents a clear expression of the popular will. Many caucusgoers support nonviable candidates on first preference knowing they can support a stronger candidate on second preference when it counts. They could even act tactically to improve their candidate’s position by supporting a candidate they oppose, like a Biden voter who might support Elizabeth Warren to keep her viable on first alignment, thus preventing her supporters from flocking to Mr. Sanders on second alignment. The viability thresholds make second alignment an especially poor measure of the popular will, since it makes the result a function of the geographic distribution of the support of candidates and their rivals, rather than the true support of a candidate.
A campaign that prevails by another measure will undoubtedly have a case of its own. Many of those arguments may be compelling. They may be particularly compelling to Democrats after the 2016 election, when Mrs. Clinton won the most votes but lost the presidency in the Electoral College. And there is no doubt that Iowa Democrats have set up a strange process with the potential to muddle the outcome.
But ultimately, Iowa is a contest for state delegate equivalents. That is the way Iowa Democrats have set up the game, and that is the way the contestants and participants will be playing it. It does not seem to be the place of a news media organization to decide the winner by another measure.