What if, Adam Nagourney asks, Iowa settles nothing for the Democrats?
Indeed, what if, on Thursday night, the Iowa Democratic Party announces their state delegate equivalents as follows:
Did anyone win? What’s a winner? Did anyone lose?
It is entirely possible that the candidate who manages to turn out the largest number of supporters to the caucuses, or the candidate who manages to form the largest preference groups, winds up receiving fewer “state delegate equivalents” than the runner-up. Why? The principles of one-person, one vote do not apply.
A preference group of 10 in one precinct may be worth more than a preference group of 10 in another. And in tiny precincts, it might not even matter who has the largest preference group. If they’re of similar sizes, everyone, depending on the number of delegates awarded, could get one. Or – a candidate’s preference group could be almost twice the size of the next largest group and get the same number of delegates. (Ask me to explain the “highest fractional remainder” concept if you want to tear your hair out.)
In 2004, John Edwards received a disproportionately high number of state delegates because he managed to win lots of rural precincts; John Kerry’s margin of victory was enough to prevent the nightmare scenario described above, but he received fewer delegates than his entrance poll strength would have predicted.
In this scenario, should the media report that Obama won the caucuses? Or should we report that the results are, essentially, a tie; that the contest moves to New Hampshire; that it’s impossible to know precisely how many people actually caucused for Obama. I suspect that if the delegate results are this close, the results of the entrance poll won’t be too helpful.
Now – if several points separate first from second from third, then the media can declare a winner.
And here are two caveats:
(1) If Hillary Clinton places third, the media will be tempted to declare her vanquished.
(2) If John Edwards doesn't finish first, the media will be tempted to write him off for New Hampshire...
.... even if the margins are that close.