Written by Brandon C. Kesselly (@bckesso)

Monday night, the Democratic nomination process began in earnest with the first contest, the Iowa caucuses. After months of speculation, rhetoric, and debates, we finally got to see who was truly winning over voters in the race to face President Donald J. Trump.

How does it work?

Think of it kind of like ranked-choice voting, but in person: The Iowa caucuses collect participating voters in a room and physically group them based on their preferred candidates. These groups are then used to represent each candidate’s vote share.

This year, the Iowa caucuses had three metrics represented: first alignment, final alignment, and state delegate equivalents (SDEs).

First alignment represents the initial grouping of voters in the caucuses. This is the first choice candidate for each voter. What happens here, however, is that each candidate must meet the “viability threshold” of the precinct. If they don’t, they may join another group or go home. It should be noted that candidates may join a viable group or combine with another nonviable group to make it viable. They may also choose to join an uncommitted group.

Final alignment represents the candidates’ final support after the viability shuffling. The SDEs are translated from the final alignment to a weighted representation of the precinct’s voter base. These weights are, in turn, based on the general election numbers from Hillary Clinton and Fred Hubbell, the previous presidential (2016) and gubernatorial (2018) nominees, respectively.


As of Monday, February 3, 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was the polling front-runner in Iowa for Democrats with 22.1%, per FiveThirtyEight. Former Vice President Joe Biden was the runner up with 20.7%, followed by South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren with 15.5% and 14.7%, respectively.

Based on their model, FiveThirtyEight also projected Sanders to win an average of 28% of SDEs, with 14 out of a possible 41 delegates. Biden was projected to win 26% and 12 delegates, while Buttigieg (18%) and Warren (16%) were likely to have an average of 7 and 6 delegates, respectively.

This year, the Iowa Democratic Party utilized a new smartphone app to report the results, which caused some concern in the shadow of the previous presidential election cycle. “Security experts say that the app is a potential target for early election interference,” wrote NBC’s Ben Popken, “particularly since it is downloaded on to the personal phones of the caucus managers.” Party officials responded saying they could not “[disclose] specifics about the app.”

How exactly did this play out?


Due to technical difficulties with the app, official results for the Democrats were delayed well into the following day. Candidates and voters went to bed without any results reported, leading most to address their supporters while caucus managers manually tabulated and verified the data. The Sanders campaign even released their internal figures to the press, warning it was the results of only 40% of precincts.

Eventually, the official results were released. With roughly 97% of precincts reporting as of Thursday morning, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders were neck and neck for first place. Buttigieg was narrowly projected the SDE front-runner with 550 SDEs (26.2%), after a first and final alignment of 36,718 (21.3%) and 42,235 (25%), respectively. Senator Sanders led both alignment tallies with 42,672 (24.7%) and 44,753 (26.5%), logging 547 SDEs (26.1%). Senator Elizabeth Warren was in third place with about 381 (18.2%), based on first and final alignments of 32,007 (18.6%) and 34,312 (20.3%). Former Vice President Biden came in fourth place with 25,699 (14.9%) and 23,051 (13.7%), netting him 331 SDEs (15.8%). We are still awaiting the final figures, but these trends are not likely to change significantly save a chance for Sanders to seal the deal in all three metrics.

What’s Next?

February has three more Democratic debates on the 7th,19th, and 25th. Each of them precede their respective contests in the New Hampshire primary (February 11), the Nevada caucuses (February 22), and the South Carolina primary (February 29). It should be noted that the same app used in Iowa will also be used in Nevada.

March 3 is Super Tuesday, which features a whopping 16 contests and a total of 1,357 delegates up for grabs, effectively demonstrating whether there is a clear front-runner and successor to Hillary Clinton as the party’s standard bearer.

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