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How a Small Rules Change Could Completely Upend the 2020 Presidential Primaries

As a part of the revamping of the Democratic presidential primaries, the Democratic National Committee has (i) required state to allow absentee ballots in caucus and (ii) prohibited super delegates from voting in the first round at the Democratic convention. I will explain why a less covered change might be the most important: requiring caucuses to report initial vote totals.

Iowa caucus voters do not directly vote for a candidate, but instead vote to elect delegates who pledge to support a candidate. Specifically, voters elect delegates to the county convention. The delegates at the county convention then further select delegates to the state and congressional district conventions. Only at the state and congressional district conventions do delegates select the national delegates who will officially vote for whom the Democratic Party should nominate as president.

However, a candidate does not simply get county delegates proportional to the candidate’s percentage of the caucus vote. To get any delegates, a candidate has to be “viable” and get at least 15% of the vote. This is where the politicking at each caucus truly begins. The supporters of the viable candidates try to convince supporters of the non-viable candidates to caucus with them and the supporters of the non-viable candidates try to cobble together enough support to become viable.

Previously, only the official support of pledged delegates has been recorded as the election results for a precinct. The rule change would instead require precincts to report both the list of pledged delegates and the previously “unofficial” initial voter support for a candidate.

As the Iowa caucuses require a candidate to be viable to get any delegates votes, the traditionally reported Iowa caucus results did not fully reflect voter support. For a candidate polling around or under 15%, the candidate risked effectively receiving few recognized votes as the candidate was not viable in many precincts. Additionally, the higher polling and more viable candidates did better based not upon their direct support, but from voters whose favorite candidate was not viable. For instance, in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, all but the three major candidates lost most of the voter share that the polling indicated and each of the three major candidates got more delegates than polling indicated. Specifically, the Real Clear Politics polling average of the Iowa caucus polling versus the final results was:

Likewise, in the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucus, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders get more delegates than the Real Clear Politics polling average predicted and Martin O’Malley lost virtually all the support his polling indicated:

If reporting initial vote totals at caucuses does not alter how many delegates a candidate will get or the likely the winner of the caucuses, why is the change still important? As former presidential candidate Howard Baker put it, “Iowa winnows the field.” By reporting results that indicate politicians with modest support in Iowa (even if nationally competitive) have virtually no Iowa support, poor Iowa election results create the perception that the candidate has no support and must be “winnowed out”. With more accurate election results, candidates who have under 15% of Iowa support can more easily spin a loss and demonstrate enough support to continue campaigning. The rule change to report initial vote totals might be particularly important this cycle as a large field could split the Iowa vote, leading to many candidates having less than 15% support.


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