Don’t Get “Spun” on Iowa Caucuses by the So-called Victors

National Politics

IowaLittle Rock    Listening to KABF as I drove to my trailer in Little Rock the other night, super jock, Seth Baldy, had a co-host helping him out who just happened to be from Iowa. Seth asked him about the caucuses. Essentially he said he left Iowa “running” at 18 and had never been back, but he knew the general story. Then in a bit of a surprise to many listeners he went into a brief spiel about the layers of caucuses from precinct to county to state which probably left most listeners clueless, but is at the heart of the real story in Iowa on how delegates are selected and invariably part of the war in the spin room in the first stage of the caucuses as candidates push and shove to be declared the winner, whether or not that turns out to be the case months down the road or not.

This is one of those times where you almost would have had to have been there, but, yes, Virginia, there have been several candidates who were anointed as winners by the media the night of the precinct caucuses and the morning after who ended up not being the winners at all once the whole multi-level process was concluded and the real number of delegates were awarded. There have been cases where the anointed winner the night of turned out not to be the winner a week later, but the die was cast and less attention was paid even though the impact on New Hampshire and other elections immediately after was huge.

Remember the caucus rules are set by each party, and they can, and do, change from cycle to cycle, including the question of whether or not delegates being elected at the caucus level are bound in any way, shape or form to any candidate whatsoever, complicating the mess even more. In 2012 for example on the Republican side the media anointed ex-Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania as the hairline winner over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with Ron Paul, the former Texas Congressman in 3rd place. But, who really won the delegates? The answer might surprise, but it was Ron Paul who took 22 of Iowa’s 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention given the better organization of his team at the next levels and their dominance of the state convention.

There are over 1100 precincts in Iowa so getting the results in the best of times involves herding cats, yet the disproportionate weight given to the state’s position as the first contest puts immense pressure on the media to get the story even if they have to jump the shark. Communication teams for the candidates claiming facts and figures from throughout the state have their own primary “contest” seeing how many reporters they can spin with their story of how well their candidate did precinct by precinct. The early editions may NOT resemble the story the morning after!

With only three main candidates the story on the Democratic side is likely to be more accurate this time. There is a half hour for delegates to align with a candidate and any candidate failing to hit a 15% threshold sets off a scramble to pull them over to the side of the survivors for another half hour until there is a division of the house and delegates are assessed to go to the next level convention. On the Sanders-Clinton race if it’s close, as it is expected to be, then there would still be uncertainty on the shakeout for the real winner until the county conventions at the least, though by then in all likelihood the advantage or damage will already have been won in the green rooms by one side or another’s communications team, and the parade goes on.

With the Republicans’ list still so large the top-line candidates like Trump and Cruz have a huge advantage but the rules have changed for 2016 since the party is now mandating that delegates have to be bound to a choice for a candidate, and the candidate has to receive the correct proportional level of strength represented by delegates in each precinct. After 2012 when 8 precincts were lost, they claim to have cleaned up their act.

Charlie Szold, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said, “We have partnered with Microsoft and they have built us a special app that allows our precinct captains to report data quickly. They can do that right there on their smart phones or tablets or computers and they can do it very accurately because you can see the number you are typing in.” He added that at the central collection point there will be special algorithms to flag any data that doesn’t match up to expectations, so unusual numbers will generate contact with the precinct for confirmation or correction. Szold said, “The results will be made available almost in real time. The results will come to us. They will go through that internal check I was talking about and then they will be published on a public website with a map view of Iowa. You will be able to see results at the precinct level.

We’ll see soon, but until then and for the foreseeable future: don’t be spun! Make sure you have the real count before sorting out the future.