Why Bernie Might Declare Victory in Iowa Even If He Loses

Bernie Sanders campaigning in Iowa in late January.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons for the leading Democratic presidential campaigns to be on edge two days out from Iowa’s caucuses. For one, it’s an airtight race between four front-runners and a fifth candidate with (some measure of) momentum, and an uncertain impeachment schedule has kept three of them away from the state in crunch time. But among the most disconcerting worries to the campaigns — the one that amounts to the biggest ultimate question mark— is a potential muddle on caucus night once the results are announced. That’s because this year, the Iowa Democratic Party is set to announce three results on caucus night, which might give two, or even three, different candidates reason to cheer. For the first time, the party won’t just reveal the final “state delegate equivalent” totals that the candidates earn based on a calculus that tallies up all the outcomes from caucus sites of different sizes — from big cities like Des Moines and Iowa City to remote rural areas — but also two raw-vote totals: the initial one when all caucusgoers are asked who they back, and the second one, once lower-voting campaigns are eliminated and Iowans backing them get to support their second picks.

In theory, this added degree of transparency should give campaigns interesting data about the shape of their support. But the Associated Press and other news organizations have said they’ll report the winner based on the state delegate equivalent total, which ultimately counts toward the nomination, as usual. And most campaigns designed their organizations in the state to maximize delegates, a task often achieved by making sure they had robust presences even in smaller, less populated parts of the state. Campaigning in a caucus state is inherently different than campaigning in a primary state, where the raw vote is almost always the only total that matters.

Yet earlier this month, Bernie Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver, his 2016 campaign manager, told the AP that “the first impression is probably the most accurate portrayal of who won the night,” raising the possibility that multiple candidates could declare victory based on the different measures announced by the state party. He did note that, like every campaign, Sanders would be trying to win all three counts, but the upside for Sanders to focusing on the first raw total, specifically, is straightforward: At least some Iowa polls have shown he is the second-choice candidate of fewer Iowans than other contenders like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. That means Sanders could lose ground in the realignment portion of the evening, especially if more moderate candidates like Amy Klobuchar are eliminated and their backers support others in that ideological lane, or even Warren. (Sanders is likely to make the viability threshold in most caucus sites, so he probably doesn’t have to worry about his backers redistributing their support to other candidates.) Printed pre-caucus materials that Sanders’s campaign has circulated tells backers the process “should take less than an hour,” which is only true in many sites if the initial alignment is the only one needed. And Sanders said on Saturday at an appearance in Indianola, Iowa, “we will know very, very early who wins the Democratic caucuses” — apparently doubling down on this notion.

Yet the other top-tier campaigns have largely been silent about whether they’re considering putting an extra emphasis on any of the other metrics on caucus night. So I asked around.

Buttigieg’s national press secretary Chris Meagher replied in an email. “The only thing that counts in Milwaukee is delegates,” he wrote, referring to the party’s national nominating convention in July. “And this year, more than any other, Democratic voters are looking for a nominee who knows how to win.” Warren’s team sounded a similar note, landing the two campaigns that are widely thought to have the best on-the-ground organizations firmly in the delegate-total camp. “All news organizations are considering State Delegate Equivalents (SDEs) as the measure of the Iowa caucuses,” a campaign aide told me. “We agree.”

After a Biden speech in Waukee on Thursday morning, I caught up with former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, who’s been backing, stumping for, and advising Biden all over the state. “It doesn’t matter at the end of day, how many — total — people show up. What matters is delegates. It’s sort of like this: Are you a football fan?,” he asked me. (Sort of — since I’m a Jets fan — but I just said yes.) “So Kansas City was down to the Tennessee Titans 24-0 at halftime. Was the game over? No, turns out there was a second half to play and they scored 51 points, and they won 51-27.” (This isn’t what actually happened in this year’s AFC championship game, but the Chiefs did mount a comeback to win.) “That’s kinda the situation here,” he continued. “The halftime is gonna be when the first round of raw numbers comes in. You can’t declare a winner at that point. You gotta wait till the game is over.”

I asked Vilsack if he was concerned about the different totals that would be made public. “I’m concerned that folks in your business need to understand what winning actually is,” he said. “It’s about delegates, because at the end of the day you could have a million people show up in one precinct and not have anybody else show up in another precinct, and you could be smoked on delegates.”

Weaver, for his part, said he believes “it is true that you are potentially going to get a different first-round winner from the realignments — that is certainly true — but voters and the media are sophisticated enough to understand that.” Still, Weaver — who was one of the Sanders allies at the center of pushing this policy change as part of the Democratic National Committee’s post-2016 Unity Reform Commission — stood by his stance that he would be watching the initial raw count, no matter what his rivals say, and no matter what caucus history or delegate rules dictate. “Because Iowa is first and plays a critical role in telegraphing to subsequent states and the District of Columbia,” he insisted, “it’s important that people in those states have a way of comparing it to what happens in their own states.”