The Iowa caucuses are never simple. Voters spend hours in high school gymnasiums or public libraries, starting their night by declaring support for their preferred presidential candidate. That’s followed by a feverish round of lobbying in which supporters of eliminated candidates are pressed to make a new pick by the evening’s end.
This year, the caucuses could be even more chaotic.
New rules that will be implemented for the Feb. 3 contest could give presidential candidates an unprecedented opportunity to spin the results. In previous years, the Iowa Democratic Party reported just one number: the number of state delegates won by each candidate. For the first time, the party will this year report two other numbers — who had the most votes at the beginning and at the end of the night.
The additional data is a nod to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, who argue the previous rules essentially robbed him of victory in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton. That contest ended in a narrow delegate victory for Clinton in Iowa.
Party officials in Iowa and at the national level argue the new process will enhance transparency. But as the caucuses approach in less than three weeks, there’s a growing sense that the new information will breed confusion by giving multiple candidates the chance to claim victory.
The Iowa caucuses are supposed to set the tone for the contests that follow, ultimately helping winnow the field. If multiple candidates can claim success in Iowa, it could prolong the fight for the Democratic nomination.
“Adding additional numbers is going to make it more confusing for news organizations and people watching the caucuses,” said Derek Eadon, who worked as Julián Castro’s deputy campaign manager, was a top Iowa aide to Barack Obama in 2008 and is now supporting Sanders. “People are going to want to know who won, and I don’t know if there’s consensus on one number that people will use to declare that.”
What’s happening in Iowa will also play out in other states that hold caucuses, including in Nevada on Feb. 22. Three numbers will be reported: the first round of votes, the final vote total after low polling candidates are eliminated and what are called state delegate equivalents. They represent the number of delegates each candidate will have at the party’s state convention in June. That, in turn, determines how many national convention delegates each candidate receives.
The Associated Press said Thursday it will base its race call of the winner on state delegate equivalents, because delegates are the metric used to decide the eventual winner of the nomination. Iowa and national Democratic Party figures emphasize this is the number to watch.
“This is a contest for delegates,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said. “Campaigns will highlight whatever number is the most advantageous for them. But in the end, what matters is the delegates that come out of Iowa to the national convention, and (state delegates) will remain the best indicator of that.”
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, echoed that.
“The only way to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee is by winning a majority of national convention delegates,” he said. “We strongly encourage anyone who wants to understand who is winning the race for the nomination to pay attention to those results.”
The question is whether candidates will follow their lead.
Sanders’ chief adviser, Jeff Weaver, said his team is “trying to win all three” categories of results. But he also suggested the campaign will emphasize the raw totals from the first round of votes no matter the eventual outcome.
“At the end of the day, the first impression is probably the most accurate portrayal of who won the night,” Weaver said.
There’s a chance a candidate might win the most support during the first vote but lose out on the final alignment — and ultimately the delegate count — after supporters for candidates who are not viable realign after the first round of counting. This is a scenario that could play out for a candidate like Sanders or former Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom are expected to be viable in the largest number of precincts statewide.
Michael Halle, a senior adviser to former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, told reporters this week that the caucus metric that matters for the campaign is ultimately the delegate count. Biden’s team expressed the same.
“Delegates are ultimately how the nomination for the Democratic Party will get decided, so delegates are obviously an important part of what comes out of the caucuses,” Biden campaign manager Anita Dunn said.
For lower-tier candidates such as Tom Steyer or Andrew Yang, the initial vote numbers could be crucial. If they don’t hit the 15% support needed to win any delegates but still turn out more individual caucus-goers than expected, for instance, they could point to their initial support as evidence they remain competitive in the primary.
A candidate who’s losing in the overall delegate count may try to make an electability case by highlighting his or her geographic strength, pointing perhaps to his or her raw support during the first or final alignment in counties that went from Obama to Donald Trump in 2016. A number of operatives suggested Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Buttigieg may frame the caucus results in this way.
The changes reflect a hangover from the 2016 campaign that looms over Iowa Democrats.
Some Sanders backers argued the publicly reported outcome of the caucuses, which showed Sanders and Clinton nearly tying in the delegate count, with Clinton slightly ahead, didn’t adequately reflect the raw number of voters turning out to support the Vermont senator. That perceived disparity between Sanders’ support on the ground and the delegate outcome — a disparity that is not backed up by publicly available data — fueled charges from his supporters that the caucuses were tilted in favor of Clinton.
Four years later, some Iowa Democratic operatives are concerned that if Sanders wins the most support in the state but loses the overall delegate count, that could again drive charges that the caucus process is stacked against a particular candidate.
Sanders’ Iowa state director, Misty Rebik, said that “the popular vote is very important. We fought for (the reporting change), and we’re proud of that.” Rebik suggested the campaign is going to tout the first alignment numbers no matter the outcome.
“We want to emphasize that the way that we beat Donald Trump is by having the biggest, largest grassroots coalition, and that’s through pure numbers,” she said.