Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tie Goes the Other Way

So the official numbers from Iowa are finally out, and it's still a tie -- but now it's a tie with Rick Santorum having a few more officially counted votes than Mitt Romney. The Iowa Republican Party, which of course knows that Romney is very likely to be the nominee, has decided against calling it a win for Santorum, and the press is playing along -- the New York Times on its home page right now says "No Official Winner for Iowa Caucuses." Adam Serwer calls it correctly:
Odd that media legs are repeating "tie" spin in Iowa, since the only reason that's being said is to avoid embarrassing the assumed nominee.
And adds that if they called the old results a Romney win, then they should now be talking about a Santorum win. I agree -- although better, in both cases, to call it a tie. Remember, nothing tangible is at stake in the question of who had a few more votes, so I don't see any need for the press to pretend to know more than they actually do. It's a tie.

I think this actually demonstrates that I was correct in saying, before Iowa, that it didn't really matter how the votes fell as long as Romney, Santorum, and Ron Paul were 1-2-3 in some order. What mattered was the spin, especially within the partisan press. And that spin was largely independent of the exact order of finish. As it happened, Santorum seems to have received a lot less positive media attention than some previous strong finishers in Iowa, although I'll be interested to hear of any studies about what Fox News actually looked like in the days after Iowa.

Could things have been different had Santorum had this tiny lead on the night of the caucuses? There's no way to prove it one way or another, but again: lots of second place finishers have received plenty of great press. Some of this may actually have been Santorum's own fault, since he inexplicably waited until most people had gone to bed before giving a victory speech that night. But my assumption is that if GOP party actors really had wanted to derail Mitt Romney that they would have spun the results heavily for Santorum, and as far as I could see that never happened. It's hard to believe they would have acted differently had the tie gone the other way back then.


  1. This is a crazy morning of political news that all means absolutely nothing.

  2. Heartening to hear that the GOP (and the mainstream press) retains a healthy indifference to the particulars of voting counts and outcomes. One worried they had wavered since fall 2000.

    1. There should be an indifference to the "winner" of the tie in Iowa. Good reporting calls it a tie; bad reporting calls it a win.

    2. Agreed. Alas almost no one adhered to your proper stance.

      Neither the GOP or the mainstream press acted this way in their characterization of the race. In particular a bunch of supposedly good reporters and journalists portrayed Romney as having won the first and then eventually the first two contests, when that was really a presumption without adequate evidence and thus a misleading description.

      And many in the GOP, including many elites, portrayed things as a Romney win from the get-go. That was perhaps predictable given incentives for spin, but it also showed "indifference to the particulars of voting counts and outcomes." And it seems quite fair to see that as part of a pattern of indifference that shows up in ways big (2000 election) and small (Iowa primary ties).

  3. Good reporting calls it a tie; bad reporting calls it a win.

    Oh really? So what vote margin is enough to establish a "win", then? 50? 100? 1,000?

    Or are you saying that the result of the GOP Iowa caucus will always be a "tie" (and never a "win") because the results are non-binding?

    Here's the thing: when a reporter says "tie", approximately 100% of readers will take that to mean two or more candidates got an equal number of counted votes. That didn't happen here.

    So to call it a "tie" is worse than "good reporting"... it's a lie. In this case, a lie designed to obscure the truth in order to avoid embarrassing a particular candidate.

    Boy am I glad you're not the editor of my local paper.

    1. It's a tie, or more accurately I suppose "too close to know who won," if the margin of "victory" is much smaller than the likely error in counting the votes. If readers understand "tie" to mean that the candidates got the same exact number of votes, they're getting a more accurate impression than if they believe that one candidate definitely got more votes than the other (which is what a "Santorum Wins Iowa" headline will have them believing.

      Of course, in most elections one of the things that matters and has to be reported is who was declared the winner, because that has important consequences. Since there's nothing like that in Iowa, there's no reason to focus on it.

    2. I see where you're coming from. But:

      1) "Too close to call" does not mean the same thing as "tie". Saying Iowa is "too close to call" is not a lie in the way that saying it was a "tie" is.

      2) It's true that, in a certain sense, we can never know who truly won an extremely close election, where the margin of victory is smaller than the likely error in counting.

      But in a different, more reality-based sense, the winner of an extremely close election is the candidate that got the most counted votes. After all, this is not a poll with a margin of error. Counting votes is the only way to determine relative support for the candidates; and we (necessarily) place our trust in the public officials tasked with counting that they will do so fairly and as accurately as possible. If there are errors in counting, that becomes part of the result.

      The honest thing for a reporter to do is to say that the winner of the election is the one with the most final counted votes, regardless of the potential for counting error. The reader can then judge for themselves whether the margin is significant enough to mean that there is a real difference in the level of support for the candidates.

  4. Fun math fact: the numbers in Florida 2000, scaled down to the size of the Iowa Republican electorate, would have been a margin of 12 votes.

  5. Let's back up a second. The "result" of the Iowa caucus that is reported is the result of a nonbinding straw poll that has nothing to do with how the delegates are selected. It was meaningless in the first place.

    Given that fact, why are we treating this as some sort of "election" where we have to accurately count the "votes"?

    The only reason anyone pays attention to Iowa in the first place is that it is more exciting for the media to be able to pretend that it is an actual election than to report on issues and wait for actual elections to happen. It's a completely Potemkin election. All that is happening now is that the curtain has been pulled back and we can see the Republican wizards operating the controls. Nothing else has changed.

    1. I think that's a little too strong. It's true that it's not directly connected to the delegates, but it's not entirely unconnected, either. And it's importance isn't about the delegates, anyway; it's the first fully electorate contest where regular voters get to have their say.

      It is a real election, with real votes. It's not the Ames straw poll (where votes are bought and sold and bused in from elsewhere). It's somewhat similar to what were called "beauty pageant" primaries, but that doesn't mean it's not a real election.

      But, yes, I do think that the question of the stakes and the context of the caucus vote is relevant to how the press should talk about it.

  6. I think that's a little too strong. It's true that it's not directly connected to the delegates, but it's not entirely unconnected, either.

    How is the question of whether Santorum won by 25 votes or Romney won by some small number of votes connected to delegate selection?

    As far as I know, the Republican Iowa Caucuses work as follows:

    1. They take a nonbinding poll of the people present. This is the "vote" that gets reported by the news.

    2. The media and many of the attendees leave.

    3. The people who stay select precinct-level delegates who will later vote on the selection of delegates to the RNC.

    Now, under that system, how is step 1 ANYTHING other than a nonbinding straw poll? Yes, it isn't as bad as the Ames Straw Poll. But there's plenty of ground between "Ames Straw Poll" and "actual election". The "vote" tallies in the Iowa Caucuses are not the actual delegate selection process; therefore, they are not an actual election.

    1. "Winning" by a handful of votes or losing has no effect at all on delegate selection.

      But the vote in general is, most likely, related, since the people who vote on delegates are some subset of the people who took the preference vote.

      So it's a bit more than a beauty contest, but even a beauty contest is a real election. The idea is that all that's at stake is demonstrating the candidates' appeal to voters, so slight variations in the count shouldn't matter much.


  7. So it's a bit more than a beauty contest, but even a beauty contest is a real election

    A beauty contest is not a real election. It's actually a poll. It's a poll with a different methodology than Gallup, but it's still a poll.

    A real election is a vote that has an operative effect. The delegate votes in the caucuses are real elections (if poorly conducted ones); the preference poll (which is the official name for the "vote") is a poll. It's theater designed to make the caucuses media-friendly.


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