With the focus of the Primary races now moving to New Hampshire many will forget how tight the Iowa Caucus was on the Democratic side. At this point its worth establishing what happened in Iowa but, more importantly, also what will be reported as having taken place. On the GOP side it is easy. Cruz beat Trump by a margin that the polls didn’t predict because they under sampled Evangelicals. However in the Democratic race it is much harder to determine who won because the media now have a few conflicting ideas about how to report the result.
The political, economic, and media establishments have been endeavouring to get Hillary Clinton to win in Iowa, and technically they got that result. According to the Des Moines Register, which is specify because the specific numbers are still not uniform across all media outlets: Clinton came out on top with 49.86%, Sanders finished second with 49.57%, and O’Malley came third with 0.57%. Realistically, however, the result was a tie. If you round to the nearest integer, both Sanders and Clinton would be on 50%.
The interesting thing is that this percentage is not about the votes cast, it’s a percentage the number of State Delegate Equivalents (SDEs) that is translated into the delegates that go to the Democratic National Convention in July later this year. Of these SDEs Clinton won 701 and Sanders won 697- a difference of four. Again it appears that Clinton won but 6 SDEs decided by coin tosses and all 6 were won by Clinton. Basically if each coin toss was treated as a tie, as was the actual result in the room, the state-wide result was so close that, technically, Sanders would have won with 697 versus Clinton’s 695. I still don’t believe that if Sanders had ‘won’ he could really claim as much because any result within 1% would lead most people to call it a tie, but it does show how archaic the Iowa caucus system is.
Firstly its a caucus which is inconvenient for the members participating and also means that there can be no recounts of the vote. Secondly it massively under-represents the support of other candidates (O’Malley got 0.57% of the SDEs but was polling significantly higher at around 5%). And thirdly the entire result was decided by chance because of coin tosses; chance should decide who starts a football game, not who the next President might be.
Now that we’ve looked at the result of the election, let’s turn to something I personally find more interesting: what the result means, in terms of the campaigns and in terms of the media. In the aftermath of the final results being announced both the media and the campaigns were desperately seeking a winner but, as the result was essentially a tie, neither were able to do so. Having said that, they all tried different strategies.
The Clinton campaign argued that they had been victorious and now they had momentum going into New Hampshire. Whilst it is true that they did technically win, I call bullshit on the idea that they have momentum. Hillary Clinton is a former First Lady, a former Senator, a former Secretary of State, and is one of the most powerful women in the world. She shouldn’t be anywhere near losing to an irreligious Vermont Senator that self-identifies as a “democratic socialist”. The momentum of a candidate is determined in large part by the media, and as a result Clinton surrogates have been all over the media claiming that they won in Iowa and this will energise Clinton supporters in other states. Again, whilst not technically untrue, this doesn’t square with reality.
In February 2015, just about a year ago, an NBC News/Marist poll showed that Clinton was polling at 68%, whereas Sanders was polling at 7%. I put it to you that if Clinton was told last year that this was going to be the result, she wouldn’t be very happy. Why do I say this? I’m not a politician but I assume that being told that you will lose 61 point lead and come within a whisker of losing in the first primary state will make you panic somewhat.
The New York Times, who endorsed Clinton and therefore would be looking to play up this result, had an Op-Ed on the day after the Iowa caucus and was not buying it: “the outcome in Iowa…dealt a jolting psychological blow to the Clinton campaign, leaving volunteers, donors and aides confused throughout the night, and then crestfallen”. Again I’m not in politics but if you claim to the press that you’ve won an election, the people in your campaign wouldn’t be on the receiving end of a “jolting psychological blow”.
The Sanders campaign didn’t claim to have won, because they technically didn’t, but I would argue they have the momentum. Sanders was always an outside long-shot. According to the media narrative he was supposed to be swatted aside by the much more qualified candidate. If you look at the result from an intellectually honest point of view and call it a tie, Sanders massively outperformed expectations, and Clinton did literally the opposite. Also, think about the wider narrative of the two campaigns. The Sanders campaign is currently on course to win New Hampshire which would mean that their two results would be a tie with Clinton in Iowa and then a win in New Hampshire. When contrasted with the other side, the Clinton campaign would have drawn in Iowa and then defeated in New Hampshire. If we are going to talk about momentum going into South Carolina and Nevada, Sanders will have it if he wins in New Hampshire.
Now let’s turn to the media. I’ve already touched upon how the New York Times has characterised the result, but more broadly this result doesn’t bode well for the Clinton campaign. On the face of it mainstream media outlets should be grandstanding about how Clinton won because they are largely supportive of establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton. However they aren’t. Why is this the case?
Why do private news companies exist? They exist for the same reason as any other type of private company: to make money. In order to do this they publicise stories to make people interested in what is going on rather than on reporting what is happening. For example stories about politics often revolve around gossip and ad hominem attacks rather than any substantive conversations. It is a boring development in the news cycle if, in an election between three candidates, one of them wins by around forty points. What is more interesting is a two horse race, and Iowa delivered just that. Yes, Clinton technically won, but almost every media outlet is reporting that it was a draw because it adds to the drama.
Another story that has plagued this presidential since both Sanders and Trump got involved is the idea of a third party candidate in the general election, the most recent being one by Michael Bloomberg. If the media reports that Clinton won, and this shuts up all critics of her electability, how can they keep peddling the idea that there will be a third party run? They can’t, so it is actually in their financial interest to give the appearance of a close race. As I mentioned above its media coverage that determines which campaigns get momentum and I’m not convinced that the Clinton campaign will capitalise much on their ‘victory’.
The Iowa caucus was the first result in the presidential election but to say that it was decisive would be a lie. Clinton and Sanders tied. I don’t care that Clinton technically got 0.3% more, let’s not lie to ourselves. The result was essentially a dead heat, and now that O’Malley has suspended his campaign the real race for the Democratic nomination can begin. The remaining debates will be two-person affairs and will give voters across the country a straight choice between a populist outsider and a shill of Wall Street and the establishment. I think from the language I just used you can work out who I want to win.