Iowa Democratic caucuses: Why more than one candidate could declare victory

The state Democratic Party is releasing three sets of results, all at once, for the first time.
Image: Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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By Jane C. Timm

DES MOINES, Iowa — After significant delays, the Iowa Democratic Party on Tuesday began releasing the results of the caucuses the day before — a move that could cause more confusion thanks to the state party's decision to report three sets of results all at once.

The first set of results show, based the partial returns, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., vying for first place, with 27 percent and 25 percent respectively.

The percentages, based on partial returns of the number of state convention delegates won by each candidate through the caucus process, are known as state delegate equivalents, or SDEs. Traditionally, this result has been the only one reported by the state party, and it's how NBC News will eventually declare a winner in Iowa.

However, this year, the Iowa Democratic Party chose to release two other sets of results, what NBC News' elections unit is calling initial preference and reallocated preference. The decision was part of a rules change to increase transparency into the process. In those two sets of results, Sanders appears to lead.

How is that possible? Like seemingly everything in Iowa right now, it's complicated.

Initial preference

Iowa's caucus system relies on local meetings, where people gather to openly show support for candidates. There were two rounds of voting Monday night.

At the start of the caucus, voters state their first choice for the nominee. This is recorded as initial preference and is reported as the raw vote totals from this first stage of the process.

Sanders, with 62 percent of the reported results, leads the "initial preference" results tally, according to results provided by the Iowa Democratic Party.

Reallocation

After everyone's initial preference is recorded, the shuffling begins. If a caucusgoer's initial candidate preference does not receive enough support to meet the precinct location's viability threshold (15 percent in most caucus locations), the caucusgoer is allowed to shift his or her support — or realign — to another candidate who did attain viability.

Caucusgoers who supported nonviable candidates can also band together to make one candidate viable. There's also the option not to choose another candidate, and the caucusgoer's vote won't be included in the reallocated tally.

Caucusgoers who sided with a viable candidate on the first go-round cannot switch their support.

This second raw vote tally is called the reallocated preference, or final alignment, and it is the final raw vote tally of the caucus.

Why different candidates can lead each set of results

The reallocated preference result is then used to calculate the number of state delegate equivalents a candidate receives from each precinct, which in turn determines the official winner of the caucuses.

It's a formula: the reallocated preference multiplied by the number of delegates assigned to the precinct, divided by the total number of caucusgoers at the site.

So the official results are not actual votes cast but, instead, the state party's estimates of the SDEs each candidate amasses. Iowa's 41 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention are allocated based on those results.

That means three different candidates could — with varying degrees of accuracy — claim a kind of victory in Iowa: the voters' first preference, the voters' realigned preference and the actual winner of the caucuses, the one with the most state delegate equivalents.

Already, at least one campaign has been quick to point to its version of victory.

"We want to thank the people of Iowa," said Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders' campaign. "We are gratified that in the partial data released so far it's clear that in the first and second round more people voted for Bernie than any other candidate in the field."