Iowa is the New Florida*

The caucus tallies are so riddled with errors that the DNC is calling for a recount.

Most OTB readers are old enough to remember this:

It became a symbol of a frustrating recount process in Florida after the state’s Presidential election tally was deemed too close to certify. No matter how earnestly officials tried to determine the true intent of each voter, partisans for the other side would inevitably deem the game rigged.

There is similarly no real reason to believe Iowa election officials are doing anything but their level best to figure out what happened in Monday’s caucuses. But, given the stakes, trust is difficult.

Sadly, as in Florida 2000 (hanging chads, butterfly ballots), poor decisions ahead of time are partly to blame for the mess.

NYT (“Iowa Caucus Results Riddled With Errors and Inconsistencies: The mistakes do not appear intentional, but they raise questions about whether there will ever be a completely precise accounting.”

The results released by the Iowa Democratic Party on Wednesday were riddled with inconsistencies and other flaws. According to a New York Times analysis, more than 100 precincts reported results that were internally inconsistent, that were missing data or that were not possible under the complex rules of the Iowa caucuses.

In some cases, vote tallies do not add up. In others, precincts are shown allotting the wrong number of delegates to certain candidates. And in at least a few cases, the Iowa Democratic Party’s reported results do not match those reported by the precincts.

Some of these inconsistencies may prove to be innocuous, and they do not indicate an intentional effort to compromise or rig the result. There is no apparent bias in favor of the leaders Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders, meaning the overall effect on the winner’s margin may be small.

But not all of the errors are minor, and they raise questions about whether the public will ever get a completely precise account of the Iowa results. With Mr. Sanders closing to within 0.1 percentage points with 97 percent of 1,765 precincts reporting, the race could easily grow close enough for even the most minor errors to delay a final projection or raise doubts about a declared winner.

The report is worth reading in full but you get the idea. The headline is simultaneously correct and frustrating. The bottom line is that election tallies for statewide races are never going to be 100 percent accurate. It’s next to impossible. But the process was sufficiently problematic as to have compromised trust.

So much so, WaPo reports, the DNC’s chairman is calling for a re-canvassing.

“Enough is enough,” he wrote on Twitter. “In light of the problems that have emerged in the implementation of the delegate selection plan and in order to assure public confidence in the results, I am calling on the Iowa Democratic Party to immediately begin a recanvass.”

A recanvass is a hand audit of math worksheets and reporting forms completed at each of the more than 1,750 precincts across the state. It differs from a full recount, which would involve a hand count of each of the “presidential preference cards” completed by caucus-goers, to ensure that caucus-by-caucus support was tallied and transmitted correctly on the worksheets and reporting forms.

Now, as someone who has—along with my OTB co-bloggers and pretty much every political scientist who has ever considered the problem—for years called for ending both Iowa’s special position as the first-in-the-nation spot in every single Presidential primary season and the caucus system in general, I suppose I should be happy that this debacle might make both those eventualities more likely. But, as we learned in Florida and multiple times since then, recounts in close races will never satisfy anyone but the winners and their supporters. Recounts, by definition, happen only in very close contests and, inevitably, every decision seems like an after-the-fact changing of the rules to the benefit or detriment of somebody.

Further, the candidates have spent upwards of a year camped out in Iowa, attending pancake breakfasts and in-home visits as part of the bucolic nonsense the locals have come to see as their birthright, all in the hopes of gaining momentum going in to New Hampshire. That prospect will pretty much be destroyed by a re-canvass. And, again, while I’m happy about that in the abstract because it might mean the end of this nonsensical tradition, it’s nonetheless a bitter pill for the candidates themselves.


*At least in terms of elections. One doesn’t imagine an upsurge in “Iowa Man” stories.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    The irony in all this? All the changes, the ones that were so draconian 11 of the 14 caucus states switched to primaries, were meant to insure there could be a recount. I guarantee somewhere in each of those 11 states are a few Democratic officials congratulating themselves on dodging a bullet. And somewhere in Nevada and North Dakota, someone just got sick to their stomach.

  2. Fortunato says:

    The Iowa kerfuffle is equivalent to Florida in much the same way Bill Clinton lying about a BJ is equivalent to Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia, his persistant fondling of Vlads gnads, his private phone calls with Ergodan prior to the slaughter of the Kurds, his extortion (via Colludy Rudy, Lev and Igor) of foreign allies, his serial criming and in general his torrent of treason.

    Iowa is done, within hours of being forgotten. It stands as a simple tale of Winners and a Loser.
    Winners – Pete and to a lesser degree Bernie and a lesser degree yet, Amy.
    Loser – Joe. Sleepy Joe. Naive “reach across the aisle” Joe.

    End of story.
    Nobody cares about the aftermath. We’re too exhausted to care.
    Iowa’s pasty white, puritan Caucus will thankfully be tossed into the trash heap of history. Good riddance.

    And as this story of Iowa’s soon to be forgotten saga was penned, Donny Two Scoops was giving the most bizarre, unhinged, abhorrent, despotic presser ever to be held in OUR GD White House in its 228 year history.

    Donald Trump really needs to be Locked. Fucking. Up.

    And, as Steve Schmidt declared on Aug 9, 2018 – Donald Trump’s Republican Party Must “Burn To The Ground”

  3. Kathy says:

    Maybe the Iowa democratic party needs to spend 10,000 hours designing elections.

    BTW, it’s a bit shocking to think that this year will mark two full decades since the Florida debacle. Where does the time go?

  4. Gustopher says:

    Vague, imperfect numbers ironically seem to give us a better sense of the race. Rather than “Bernie won!” or “Buttigieg won!”, we are getting slightly more nuanced reporting — roughly a tie for first, Biden underperforming, Amy overperforming, Warren performing.

    Only crazy people should care about the tiny differences in Bernie and Buttigieg’s numbers at this point, when the final delegate counts could be wildly divergent. And now, only crazy people can care.

    Meanwhile, the fine folks in New Hampshire have to be testing their processes like mad.

  5. JKB says:

    The meme is already out there

    “Need to make sure Bernie doesn’t get the nomination?”
    “There’s an app for that”

    Not to mention that competent app developers have looked at this app and declared it is basically a bit of code on top of the example package and looks like someone followed youtube videos on how do do say, authentication, in that package.

    But some Clinton cronies sucked cash out of the party. So there is that.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    The meme is already out there

    Oh look at the concern troll trying to ratfuck the Democratic primary…awwww, that’s so cute…

  7. al Ameda says:

    First off let me say that I actually like Iowa quite a bit, have friends who went to college in Iowa (Grinnell, U of Iowa) etc …

    For me this is a Schadenfreude Moment, and here’s why:

    For years, years, I’ve thought that the caucus system was no way to apportion delegates to a candidate. The caucus system biases the end result toward activists and retirees who have the time to show up at a caucus. It is built-in distortion. Not only that, Iowa is first in line, Iowa kicks off the campaign season. Have a primary vote for god’s sake.

    And now this may result in a couple of things, (1) Iowa might change to a primary vote system, and (2) maybe Democrats will try to bring some other state forward to be first in line.

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    In others, precincts are shown allotting the wrong number of delegates to certain candidates.

    I’d note there was one viral twitter thread going around yesterday from a Sanders surrogate claiming that a particular precinct had incorrectly allocated the delegate counts due to a rounding error, when the picture provided showed that the precinct had done it properly and the surrogate just didn’t understand the rounding rules. Even after this was pointed out by a number of people, they continued to insist it was wrong.

    Based on that, I have to wonder how many of these assertions by the Times are accurate, since they don’t provide any details.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Clinton cronies

    Let me guess: Card carrying Democrats.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    @Stormy Dragon:..incorrectly allocated the delegate counts due to a rounding error,..

    I can’t believe it!
    No way anybody screwewd up using these rules!

    Awarding Delegates
    *NOTE: The reporting app will automatically calculate the number of delegates each preference group is awarded. The following section provides details about that process, for your awareness.
    33. Calculate the number of delegates each preference group is awarded:
    a. multiply the number of members in the preference group by the total number of delegates to be elected
    b. then divide the result by the number of total caucusgoers (this is the same number used in Step 14 to determine viability)
    NOTE: The result is rounded up at 0.5 and above and rounded down at less than 0.5
    34. Add up the number of delegates awarded to each preference group and compare the total to the number of delegates assigned to the precinct.
    If the two numbers match, proceed to Step 35.
    If the total number of delegates awarded is LESS than the number to be elected, additional delegates must be awarded to one or more groups according to the following rule:
    • An additional delegate will be awarded to the group with the highest decimal below 0.5 (the group with the decimal below 0.5 but closest to it).
    NOTE: In a case where two or more preference groups are tied for the same additional delegate, a coin toss shall determine which group is awarded the addition
    If the total number of delegates awarded is MORE than the number to be elected, delegates must be subtracted from one or more groups according to the following rules•
    A delegate will be subtracted from the preference group with the lowest decimal above 0.5 (the group with the decimal above 0.5 but closest to it), BUT a group cannot lose its only delegate.
    • A group cannot lose its only delegate. If a preference group with one delegate has
    the closest decimal above 0.5, the preference group with the next closest decimal
    point and more than 1 delegate will lose the delegate.
    • In a case where two or more preference groups are tied for the loss of a delegate, a
    coin toss shall determine which group loses the delegate.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    …screwew this…

  12. gVOR08 says:

    The parallels with Florida 2000 seem a bit thin, unless you equate honest errors by mostly unpaid, untrained volunteers with dedicated professionals ratfucking. Last I heard the campaigns were cooperating in trying to get an honest recount, not bringing in staffers from DC to stage a riot to shut down counting. Nobody’s brother is governor of Iowa. No one organized a voter roll purge prior to the Iowa caucus. There are no back-postmarked military absentee ballots still coming in. No press idiot failed to realize how many time zones there are in IA and called the caucuses, incorrectly, before they closed. And while it is America in the 21st century, so this could change, I haven’t heard that anyone’s threatened to go to court.

  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher: I have to agree. Approximate results from Iowa are way more useful and way less prone to misinterpretation than exact results.

  14. Mister Bluster says:

    I haven’t heard that anyone’s threatened to go to court.

    Not to say it hasn’t happened before but I don’t remember a Democratic candidate suing a state Democratic Party over caucus or primary election results. This would not be a good look.
    Oh, wait Bernie is not a Democrat is he.

  15. Ken_L says:

    But, given the stakes, trust is difficult.

    Objectively, the stakes are trivial. Unless someone is going to claim the reported results are wildly incorrect, which seems unlikely, the errors being described would not have significantly altered the delegates awarded. The delays and confusion may have spoiled someone’s planned advertising campaign, but them’s the breaks.

  16. mattbernius says:


    Not to mention that competent app developers have looked at this app and declared it is basically a bit of code on top of the example package and looks like someone followed youtube videos on how do do say, authentication, in that package.

    Not to defend Shadow (they should never have taken the job and they have yet to really take responsibility for the screw-up) but that’s what most $60K apps developed in two months look like.

    Can you point me to that article? I’d love to read it — I’m trying to collect as much as I can on this for a conference presentation I’m working on.

    But some Clinton cronies sucked cash out of the party. So there is that.

    Man that $60K is making it RAIN!

    And just so I understand — does “cronies” here apply to anyone who worked for a campaign? I’m asking because I’m really excited for my chance to — for the next few years — point out to you all the examples of “Trump cronies” sucking cash out of the Republican party.

  17. Jax says:

    @mattbernius: He must not have seen the thing about Brad Parscale funneling a bunch of Trump’s campaign money to his own company yet….

    Gotta wonder how Trump feels about that. Grifters generally tend to frown on their grifted money going to anyone but themselves.

  18. Jen says:


    Meanwhile, the fine folks in New Hampshire have to be testing their processes like mad.

    Paper ballots, optical scanners. Yes, everything is being double- and triple-checked, I’m sure, but a primary process using paper ballots is vastly different than a caucus process. Thank god.

    And no apps. 🙂

  19. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The problem of caucuses is that they would make sense in countries with several parties and with a runoff, like Brazil and France. They are supposed to be a party affair, not part of the election. The problem is that became an important part of the election in the US.

  20. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I don’t really care about this Iowa Caucus thing…except to say that the Democratic Party better get it’s shit together, and in a fuqing hurry.
    The future of this country is at stake.
    C’mon people.

  21. mattbernius says:

    I know this story is about to go below the fold, but for those interested in a good analysis of the civic tech aspect of this story, this is very good contextualizing story via Vox: