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Iowa Caucus History Shows Winning Isn't Everything

Jonathan Bernstein

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With the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses now close, media attention is growing on the new way that Iowa Democrats will report their results. Or I should say: New ways. Because unlike the past, we’ll actually be getting three different sets of numbers — and that could produce two or even three candidates who could plausibly declare victory. (The Associated Press has announced that it will be using the old-style numbers to declare a winner; for a thorough look at what the different numbers represent, see Brianne Pfannenstiel’s explanation in the Des Moines Register.)

I’m not going to walk you through the various options because I’m here to tell you that the number-counting confusion is a thing you’re going to hear about, but it’s one you can ignore unless you happen to be a delegate counter for a candidate or a rules maven responsible for explaining this stuff. 

That’s because “winning” in Iowa, and in the New Hampshire primary a week afterward, has always been a combination of raw results, candidate spin and media interpretation. Results are only sometimes the most important factor.

Let’s go through some examples. A lot of the names I’m about to throw around are long forgotten (the Paul Simon I’ll be talking about is the late Illinois senator and 1988 presidential candidate, not the singer-songwriter), but what matters is the numbers and how the press reacted.

Perhaps the most dramatic case-study in the early-presidential-contest numbers game came on the Democratic side of the 1984 Iowa caucuses. Former Vice President Walter Mondale finished with 49%; Colorado Senator Gary Hart was next with 16%. The winner? Hart! Mondale, the overwhelming favorite for the nomination, failed to get to 50%, the completely arbitrary standard some influential political reporters set. Hart surprised them by doing as well as he did. And so Hart was showered with media attention for the next week and wound up actually winning — the other kind of winning, the one that involves getting the most votes — in New Hampshire.

I like the 1976 Iowa results, too. That year, a solid 37% plurality of caucusing Democrats wound up uncommitted. But Uncommitted is a lousy guest on the network morning shows, so reporters declared Jimmy Carter, then a little-known ex-governor of Georgia, the winner at 28%.

New Hampshire can produce similar results. In 1992, after the early front-runner Bill Clinton was hit with three major scandals, he declared himself the “Comeback Kid” after he finished there with 25% of the vote. The media more or less bought the spin, rather than giving Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas full credit for his 33%. 

Back to Iowa: In 1988, Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt received 31%, Simon was next at 27% and Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis took 22%. Who won? None of them, really. Vice President George H.W. Bush finished third on the Republican side behind Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and the televangelist Pat Robertson, and that story topped the news. Bad luck for Gephardt. 

And then there were the Republicans in 2016. Texas Senator Ted Cruz had a nice 28% in Iowa, with Donald Trump at 24% and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at a surprising 23%. But instead of Cruz (with the most votes) or Rubio (beating expectations), the media pretty much stuck with a Trump-is-inevitable story line. 

Sure, sometimes the candidate with the most votes actually wins! That happened in Iowa for Senator Barack Obama in 2008 and Senator John Kerry in 2004. It probably helped that both beat expectations, but then again see those 2016 Republicans. 

I should add: I don’t mean to be bashing anyone here. Oh, some of these examples, such as the Hart victory-by-losing, involved questionable news judgment. But a lot of them rested on reasonable interpretations of the results. And others were consistent with long-standing media biases about what counts as news and what makes a good story. As long as that’s the case, it’s up to the parties to design a process that accounts for how the media will react.

So, yes, Democrats will be reporting three different sets of numbers after the Iowa caucuses next month. But the possibility that “winning” will depend more on interpretation than on the results will be nothing new at all.

1. Eitan Hersh on political hobbyism. 

2. Dan Drezner on the U.S.-China “phase one” trade deal.

3. Matt Glassman on constitutional hardball and statehood.

4. William Adler at A House Divided on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the neoconservatives.

5. Catherine Rampell on Trump and trade.

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Andrea Gabor on the fight over public schools in Massachusetts. 

7. James Pethokoukis on Bernie Sanders and Scandinavia.

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(Corrects state represented by former Senator Bob Dole in eighth paragraph and state where Senator Ted Cruz collected the most votes in the ninth paragraph.)

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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