On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Who’ll win what in Iowa?

The Iowa caucuses – the first event in the US presidential primary season – are just a few days away.

Only the brave should venture predictions here. The polling – especially on the Republican side – is turbulent. The possible turnout rates for candidates are even more so.

But a quick survey also serves to go over the complex process by which convention delegates are awarded – which is the real scoreboard of this complex game.

Basically, each party awards some delegates to their National Conventions on the basis of each candidate’s statewide vote, and some within each congressional district. Iowa happens to have four congressional districts.


Hillary Clinton.jpgimage - Bernie Sanders.jpgimage - Martin O'Malley.jpg
Hillary Clinton; Senator Bernie Sanders; Martin O’Malley

The Democratic party is awarding a total of 44 delegates. This party has the more complex rules, but because of there being just three candidates it will be the simpler of the two parties to predict.

Of the 44 delegates, 15 will be awarded based on the statewide vote total for each candidate.

The other 29 delegates will be awarded in the 4 congressional districts as follows:

  • 1st district; the north-east of the state, including the city of Cedar Rapids – 8 delegates
  • 2nd district; the south-east of the state, including the city of Davenport, and the only district to have a sitting Democratic congressman (David Loebsack) – 8 delegates
  • 3rd district; the south-west of the state, including the capitol Des Moines – 7 delegates
  • 4th district; the north-west and north of the state, including the city of Sioux City – 6 delegates

The actual system by which the delegates are awarded is made up of a complex process (well detailed at the Green Papers blogsite) of aggregating votes from each of the 1,681 caucusing locations, called precincts. But these votes do not directly elect the national convention delegates for July. Rather, the precinct votes tallied on the night of 1 February are used to elect precinct delegates from each precinct who will later attend the county conventions in the 99 counties of Iowa. (Precinct delegates are sometimes also called county delegates, or just county convention delegates).

Each precinct is specifically allocated a precise number of precinct delegates, based on the precinct’s history of electoral support for Democratic candidates in past elections. It doesn’t therefore matter how many voters actually turn up on the caucus night, the precinct’s weighted strength in the process is fixed.

Nationally, the Democratic party applies a 15% voter support threshold for candidates to be eligible to receive a share of the precinct delegates. In the state of Iowa this threshold is applied at the level of the individual local precinct, where the caucuses physically take place.

How this happens is as follows. In each of the 1,681 precinct meeting places, those present are polled once near the start of the meeting. Each candidate seeks to meet a threshold termed viability, which is a specific proportion of the voters present determined by the number of precinct delegates the precinct is allotted (the proportion is as low as 15% in precincts which send 4 or more delegates, but ranges up to 50% in precincts which send only 1 delegate). After the initial vote, participants are free to spend time persuading each other to change their votes, with a view to initially non-viable candidates achieving viability.

A second and final vote is held at the end of the meeting, but now voters who are supporting non-viable candidates will be given a final opportunity to shift their support. Each candidate who now passes the viability threshold (which may only be a single candidate in small precincts) is finally eligible to have a proportional share of the precinct delegates.

The delegate numbers are calculated as the number of delegates to award multiplied by the candidate’s vote share, rounded to the nearest number. If these awards add to more that the number of delegates available, candidates who have more than 1 delegate drop one delegate in reverse order of the remainder part of that seat/vote ratio.

The result, late on the night of 1 February, is that the numbers of precinct delegates for each candidate across each county will be known. These delegate totals will be published on the night of the caucuses.

The statewide aggregate of these delegates won will now be reported by the media as a proxy for the vote shares of the candidates; if Hillary Clinton wins, say, 53% of the delegates across the whole state, it will be reported that she won 53% of the vote. Obviously this is not literally correct. The total number of actual voters who supported each candidate – both at the initial votes in each precinct and in the final votes of the night – may not be published for some days, if at all.

On a later date, the precinct delegates at each county convention will then elect district delegates within whichever of the four congressional districts they are located.

Later on again, these district delegates will attend district conventions which will finally select the 6, 7 or 8 delegates who will attend the party’s national convention in July.

And finally, the county conventions will also select statewide delegates to the separate state convention, who will go on to determine how the 15 statewide delegates to the national convention are apportioned.

So, that’s the process. Now, back to the 1 February caucuses for this year…

Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders are both polling well – whatever happens, their vote totals should easily clear the viability threshold in virtually every precinct, and if the polls are to be believed they should not be far apart in number of supporters.

The third candidate, Martin O’Malley, is way behind; polls have him on around 3-5% across the state.

Were the Democratic race as complex as the Republican field is this year, anything could happen, precinct by precinct, under the rules outlined above. But since the Democratic race features just two quite strong candidates who are certain to be viable in virtually every precinct, the votes of all their supporters are safe, and will contribute to the precinct delegate tallies in each county.

In 2016, the only remaining issue is what do the supporters of Martin O’Malley choose to do.

In most precincts, O’Malley won’t be eligible to receive any precinct delegates, and his supporters will be invited to shift their vote to one of the two leading candidates. Only in those larger individual precincts where his support exceeds 15% (on the final vote of the evening) will he score any precinct delegates. As a result, when the precinct votes are phoned in and tallied at the end of the night, O’Malley will record an even lower delegate total than the small result he actually deserves. His reported voter support will also be shifted downward; even if he has 5% of voter support at the beginning of the night, he may be reported as only winning 1% of the delegates, and this figure will be widely mistaken for his voter following.

Moving ahead, after the precinct-county-district aggregation process has been resolved in the weeks following caucus night, the 29 district delegates are pretty much certain to be divided 4:4 between the two leaders in the 1st and 2nd districts (8 delegates), 4:3 in the 3rd district (7 delegates) and 3:3 in the 4th district (6 delegates). On this basis, only in the 3rd district will these results yield an advantage – of just a single delegate – between Clinton and Sanders. (This will also mean that in reality only the 3rd district’s results will have a material impact on the overall result.)

Later on, when the Iowa statewide convention convenes, there is very strong presumption that the 15 statewide delegates will break 8:7, or just possibly 9:6, between Clinton and Sanders.

As you can see, the blocky nature of the mathematical allocation of delegates at the district and state levels means that candidates with very small county delegate representation are likely to miss out altogether. Maybe, just maybe, O’Malley will somehow pick up a single national delegate at the statewide level; if he does, that will leave Clinton and Sanders recieving 8:8, or possibly 9:7.

In total, unless one of Clinton or Sanders ‘wins’ Iowa by a very substantial margin, the delegate tally at the absolute outside will be a 24:20 split of the 44 available delegates.

Any closer result, and mixed fortunes in different parts of the state may bring the delegate tallies even closer. 23:21 is a highly likely result on the basis of a statewide vote difference of just 3% – which is what the current polling shows. Even 22:22 is not impossible.

These results won’t get finalised until several weeks after the February 1 voting happens, although it is likely – but not certain – that the final delegate outcome will be predictable on the night of 1 February.

When the dust settles, people will wonder why millions of dollars were spent for a net advantage of a mere 2 votes out of 4,051 elected national convention delegates.

And there are 49 states to go, with systems where the mathematics is very similar; this could be a long year.


Donald Trump.jpgimage - Ted Cruz.jpgimage - Marco Rubio.jpg
Donald Trump; Senator Ted Cruz; Senator Marco Rubio

The Republican contest follows simpler rules that the Democratic party, but the candidate configuration (there are 12 in the race) makes this race more complex and difficult to predict.

The Republicans award 30 convention delegates in Iowa: 15 statewide, plus 3 statewide officials, and 12 delegates in the districts, which I assume means 3 in each district.

(The Republican convention has somewhat smaller delegate numbers than the Democratic convention.)

There is no minimum threshold for Republicans to be awarded delegates in Iowa.

The polls are a bit unsafe to rely on right now, but lets just take the most recent aggregate (27 Jan) from the respectable RealClearPolitics service: Trump 32%, Cruz 26%, Rubio 14%, Carson 7%, Paul 4%, Bush 3% (…etc, the other 6 candidates aren’t rating much.).

On that basis, the 15 statewide delegates should be shared out something like Trump 6, Cruz 5, Rubio 3, Carson 1.

I don’t know exactly how the three officials are meant to be pledged, but presumably Trump gets 1, Cruz 1, the last I don’t know.

In the four districts, the result may vary with different voting results across the state, but it seems safe to say the Trump and Cruz get 1 each in each of the four districts, with the last delegate in each district either going to Trump also, one to Rubio, or perhaps where there is localised support another delegates goes to Cruz, or else to one of the lesser candidates.

So, that gives us some sort of overall prediction of the 30 delegates to be won: Trump 11, Cruz 9, Rubio 5, Carson 1, and around 5 more that are hard to allocate – but Trump, and less so Cruz, can expect some of these remainder.

As you can see, it’s roughly proportional to the votes, except that lower-placed candidates get severely culled by winning no delegates at all.

Now, when this is all done and dusted, the pundits and the public will focus largely on each candidate’s statewide vote. But in the end, it’s the slow accumulation of these delegate counts across all the primaries over the next four months that will matter.

Any Republican candidate whose vote is really poor, and who wins zero delegates, will be looking in pretty poor shape to continue the race.

February will see three more races like this – in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – before the big swag of states at once on March 1.


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This entry was posted on January 29, 2016 by in Current issues, United States, US presidential primaries.
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