Kausfiles Special

Can You Trust the Iowa Count?

An earlier kausfiles item (“Paul Simon: You May Already Have Won,”) noted that the Democratic caucus count in Iowa in 1988 was essentially a scam engineered by the television networks and their joint vote-counting organization (then known as the News Election Service). What was the problem? It’s complicated, but basically the networks tried to supplant the Democratic Party’s time-consuming official delegate count with their own, unofficial count of a preliminary vote. (Specifically, they tried to count noses before the votes for some candidates were reallocated when they failed to reach a 15 percent “viability” threshhold.) Then the networks screwed up the counting of this preliminary vote.

So are this evening’s Iowa caucuses going to be any better? I called the network’s current vote-counting cooperative, now known as the Voter News Service, to ask exactly what would be counted. Would the networks be trumpeting the results of entrance polls? Would they try to go into the caucuses and count the supporters of each candidate? Before or after the “viability” business? It wasn’t encouraging when VNS spokesperson Lee C Shapiro told me this was “proprietary information.” The VNS couldn’t discuss it publicly! I’d have to go the individual networks and ask them what the VNS was doing. Why the Kremlinesque secrecy? Aren’t these the basic mechanics of democracy we’re talking about?

But the answer to my initial question (obtained from Slate’s affiliate, MSNBC, and an informative column by David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register) appears to be that no, the 1988 Potemkin count won’t be repeated. The focus this year will be on the official Democratic results, as measured in “delegate equivalents.” Whatever info the shadowy VNS provides (entrance polls, or actual caucus counts in select precincts) will apparently be directed at allowing an early estimate of those official results. And the VNS (at least according to MSNBC) won’t make the attempt to count “pre-viability” votes that turned into such a joke in 1988. Indeed, because the Democratic race is a competitive two-person contest, the “viability” question is largely moot anyway–there are unlikely to be many instances where either Bradley or Gore fails to muster a “viable” number of supporters.

[Nothing on Toobin?–ed. The night is young.]