All the newscasts now are proclaiming Hillary Clinton the extremely narrow winner of last night’s Democratic caucuses, at least in terms of “delegate equivalents,” which is the only way the Donkey Party tallies its Iowa votes. And almost everybody has noted the quiddity of Hillary having won literal coin flips to break ties in six separate precincts, both to note the odds against her winning all six and also just to record the happenings as a collection of curiosities.
But I’ve seen nobody point out what should be obvious: If “delegate equivalents” are supposed to fairly represent the actual voting behavior of caucus attendees, even down to narrow fractions, then in terms of actual votes, Sanders slightly defeated Clinton. The final count of delegates to the state convention (aside from the seven won by Martin O’Malley) was Clinton 699, Sanders 695. But by actual voter decisions, the count was Sanders 695, Clinton 693, and six ties. Sure, Clinton right now goes to the state convention with four more committed delegates than Sanders, but she didn’t win her margin via voters, but by a mathematically bizarre series of coin flips. If delegate equivalents do represent voters, then Sanders probably turned out more voters than Clinton — to about the same extent that Rick Santorum edged Mitt Romney on the Republican side four years ago. Either way, it really doesn’t matter: It’s a virtual tie. But for a media culture obsessed with declaring a “winner,” then the delegate “winner” may have been Hillary, but the vote winner may have been Sanders.
For that matter, because O’Malley’s delegates are now effectively free agents (due to O’Malley dropping out of the race), then the actual delegate winner, too, won’t be determined until those O’Malley delegates declare a preference. So if Sanders takes five of those seven, then he, not Hillary, will be the “winner” among delegates as well — even despite Hillary’s coin-flip casino roll.
So, memo to the media: Don’t do what you did on the GOP side four years ago, when you pre-called it, wrongly, for Romney. Instead, just call it a dead heat, and move on.
Addendum/clarification: It has since been pointed out to me that the coin flips at issue were for county delegates, not delegates to the state convention. The latter, though, are dependent on the former, so the flips were not insignificant. So, depending on how the arithmetic works in each county, the coin-flip winners may, but do not necessarily, directly make the difference in the statewide allocation of 699–695 delegates as discussed above. The conclusion remains the same: Because there is no direct reporting of actual votes cast, and because the O’Malley delegates are now free agents, the right way to report the results is as a dead heat, not a victory for Clinton.