The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
The ‘Change’ Election
The men who placed in Monday’s Iowa caucuses are both now crying foul. “Donald Trump is accusing Republican presidential rival Ted Cruz of committing fraud ahead of Monday night’s Iowa caucuses, and calling for a ‘new election,’ ” reports the Hill. Trump’s complaints hardly rise to the level of fraud: an obnoxiousMoveOn .org-style mailer the Cruz campaign sent, and a rumor the senator’s staff helped spread that Ben Carson was ending his campaign. Cruz apologized for the latter, saying his people misunderstood a media report about Carson.
But Bernie Sanders has a serious point. “I do think it’s kind of unfortunate that . . . it may be the case that some delegates were selected based on a flip of a coin. Not the best way to do democracy,” the Daily Caller quotes the Vermont socialist as saying in New Hampshire.
We wrote about this yesterday, but it turns out we misunderstood a key point—though in our defense, the whole process is so bizarre that it’s hard to make head or tail of it. (At an event last night we spoke with someone who had read our column without having registered that it was about literal coin flips, so we reiterate that point at the outset.)
Our error was in assuming that the coin flips directly affected the final state “delegate equivalent” count, which is what Iowa Democrats report as the result of their caucuses. (The Republicans, by contrast, conduct a simple statewide popular vote.) We were set straight by a Des Moines Register article with the noun-heavy title “Iowa Caucus Coin Flip Count Unknown.” It turns out the coins’ effect is indirect.
Here’s how the Democratic process works: Caucus-goers in each of the state’s 1,681 precincts vote on the selection of some 11,000 countydelegates, who “influence but are not the same as the 1,400 statewide delegate equivalents that were awarded in the final results.”
Since the precincts are relatively small, the likelihood of a tie—broken by the coin toss—is relatively high. Coins can also be thrown when something goes wrong with the vote—for example, when 60 voters in an Ames precinct were “apparently missing,” according to Register reporters Jason Clayworth and Jason Noble. (No word on whether they ever turned up.)
Yesterday we noted that, according to the Register, Mrs. Clinton had won 6 of 7 known coin flips. The Register now reports that Sam Lau, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, said Sanders won 6 of 7 known flips. “It’s unknown if there is any overlap between the coin flips identified by the Register and the coin flips the state party confirmed,” the Register helpfully notes.
Further, “officials who reported county delegate totals without using the party’s smartphone app weren’t required to signify if the win was the result of a coin toss.” Thus the total coin count is anybody’s guess.
The coin flips aren’t even the strangest part of the process. In an update today, the Register reports the final “delegate equivalent” numbers: 700.59 for Mrs. Clinton, 696.82 for Sanders. Math is hard, so reporter Jennifer Jacobs gets her calculator out. “That’s a 3.77-count margin,” she writes, getting the right number but the wrong word: A “count” is a whole number, or in special cases a number with a fraction (as in a 1½-bath apartment). Rational numbers with a decimal component like 700.59, 696.82 and 3.77 are properly described as ratios.
The format of the final results reminds us of an old “Star Trek” trope, wherein Kirk would ask Spock to estimate, say, how long it would take to get somewhere, and he would reply instantly with an improbably precise estimate, delivered in a perfect deadpan. The joke, of course, was that Spock was an inhuman brainiac (or, to be precise, 0.50 of one).
But the Iowa Democrats aren’t joking. They expect their talk of 0.59 of a delegate here and 0.82 of a delegate there to be taken seriously as the will of the voters, even though they refer to nothing concrete and are two steps and an unknown number of coin tosses removed from actual votes. Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Des Moines’s Drake University, tells Jacobs: “There aren’t even paper ballots [in the Democratic caucuses] to use for a recount in case something doesn’t add up.”
Clayworth and Noble report that “it’s highly unlikely the coin flips had an impact on the caucuses [sic] final outcome, said Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the party who said he would have caucused for Hillary Clinton had he not been occupied with other political responsibilities.” NPR has a story flatly denying that the coins were definitive: “Coin-Toss Fact Check: No, Coin Flips Did Not Win Iowa for Hillary Clinton.”
Those reassurances are unlikely to satisfy Sanders supporters. Iowa Democrats employ a process that is both opaque and complex to the point that it cannot be understood without technical training. This year it has yielded an extremely narrow “victory” for a candidate whom party officials have long regarded as the inevitable nominee, and who is known for her corruption.
That a corrupt candidate has prevailed by way of an incomprehensible process does not necessarily mean the process is corrupt, but it is entirely natural to suspect it may be. Thus these Salon headlines: “Sanders’ Supporters Cry Foul Over ‘Coingate’: Controversy Over Coin Tosses That Made Clinton ‘Winner’ in Iowa” and “Stephen Colbert Takes On #CoinGate: ‘The Democrats Picked the Winner Last Night the Same Way Roommates Decide Who Has to Drive to Taco Bell.’ ” In response, one wag tweets: “come on it’s obviously COINGHAZI.”
Incidentally, Salon has been even more of a delight than usual of late. In addition to the usual attacks on Republicans, it has featured equally vitriolic infighting between supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Sanders. Examples: “I Have Had It With Naive Bernie Sanders Idealists” (John Avignone); “I Have Had It With Cynical Faux-Realists Attacking Bernie Sanders Idealists” (Cat J. Zavis); “The Clintons’ Sordid Race Game: No One Will Say It, but the Clintons’ Rise Was Premised on Repudiating Black Voters” (Corey Robin); and our personal favorite, “Bernie Bros, Stop This Meme: Your Dumb Joke About Hillary’s Music Taste Isn’t Funny—It’s Predictably Sexist” (Annie Zaleski).
Salon has long described the Republican contest as a “clown car.” Yet Trump notwithstanding, the GOP has started off in a far more orderly fashion than have the Democrats, who were expecting a dignified coronation.
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