What’s the Matter with Iowa

This was initially published yesterday as part of Prelude to Iowa. It looks like this scenario is playing out in real time so it deserves to be out on its own.

Beware of Paradoxical Results

You might think that first-past-the-post or the plurality vote is the worst voting system ever. You’d be wrong. In 2017, my student, Brandon Payne studied the Iowa Caucuses. He determined that the caucuses violate all sorts of mathematical “fairness criteria.” One example is the Condorcet criterion which states that if one candidate beats every other candidate in head-to-head match-ups, that candidate should be the overall winner. Such a candidate might not win the Iowa Caucuses.

Turns out, the viability constraint can also lead to seemingly contradictory results, which I’ll call the “viability paradox.” As a quick example, suppose that in some state, the voters have the following preferences.

Candidate A35%
Candidate B30%
Candidate C12%
Candidate D12%
Candidate E11%

In a primary election, this would be a clear victory for candidate A.

Now let’s divide our state into five precincts of 100 voters each and let’s assign each precinct 10 delegates. We’ll conduct a caucus to allocate the delegates.

Suppose that the voters are arranged within the caucuses according to the graphic below.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

Notice that there are non-viable candidate preference groups in each precinct. These voters will have to join a viable group in order to participate. They may reorganize themselves as shown below.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

And so, in this case, Candidate B actually wins pretty decisively, probably 23 delegates to 15 delegates for A. Candidates C, D and E should get 4 delegates each.

There might be good reasons to decide that either candidate A or B is the rightful winner here, but one point is that there is a significant difference. Systems like this can lead to chaotic or paradoxical results. One important take away is that, right or wrong, geography can have a lot of influence on who the victor will be. Even if a candidate seems to be ahead in the polls, they can lose without any shenanigans going on, simply because how their voters are distributed across the state. Surprising results aren’t necessarily nefarious or even necessarily surprising.

You might even want to argue that results like this are a good thing because a lot of voters got to express their second choices. Here’s why you’d be wrong. It’s not systematic. In Instant Run-Off voting, for example, everybody’s second choice is counted unless their first choice is. In the caucus exactly whose second choices are counted is determined by an accident of geography. In deciding a winner between candidates A and B above, should the second choices of voters who picked candidate C in precinct 1 be less important than those in precinct 3? They shouldn’t be but in the current system they are. This is worse than a plurality vote because this could be taking us even farther away from a good collective decision.

In fact, it’s a bit worse than that. Apparently, the state weighs the delegate counts in rural counties a bit more heavily than their urban counties. If the Democrats who think we should dump the Electoral College are to have any intellectual consistency, they should reject these results and work to reform this process.

References

  • Payne, B., The Iowa Democratic Caucuses: A Mathematical Analysis of the “Vote,” Unpublished Manuscript.

Prelude to Iowa

These things happen on Tuesdays, right? Nope. Turns out it’s tonight. The democratic caucus was quite the roller coaster ride four years ago, perhaps we can hope for a more definitive result this time around. I plan to live blog the caucus and the results from my comfy couch in upstate New York. Results will be coming in shortly, which you can keep up with here: Iowa Results, Live.

How do the Caucuses Work?

Primaries are pretty straightforward; party members come out and vote for their preferred candidate, the votes are tallied and delegates are assigned based on the vote counts. There’s a certain amount to unpack there, but if you believe in the assumptions of first-past-the-post voting, primaries should make sense to you.

Caucuses on the other hand, can be kind of weird and I’m sure that most people don’t know what will happens at a caucus site in Iowa Tonight. Here’s what is scheduled to happen.

  1. Caucus-goers will arrive at the site. Those who are not registered have the opportunity to do so, including people who want to change their party registrations and 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before Election Day in November. Only registered democrats are allowed to participate. The number of caucus-goers is established.
  2. At 7:00 pm CST the Caucus is called to order. Representatives of campaigns may speak and caucus-goers may talk among themselves. After 30 minutes, every participant will join a “presidential preference group” or an “undecided” group. Volunteers will determine how many caucus-goers are in each group.
  3. Each preference group’s viability is determined. If a candidate has the support of fewer than 15% of the participants at a caucus location, that group is considered non-viable. Members of that preference group will not be permitted to support that candidate without additional voters. If every candidate is viable, the caucus can proceed to step 5.
  4. If one or more groups are non-viable, the members of those groups have four options. They can:
    1. join a viable group,
    2. merge with another non-viable group to form a viable group,
    3. attempt to recruit members from a viable group to become viable or
    4. leave the caucus. Every group must be viable before the caucus can end.
  5. The size of each preference group is determined. Once every group is viable, the results can be officially recorded and released to the Iowa Democratic Party and the media. The caucus is declared closed.

Conventional Wisdom

This is all over the place. Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com last time I looked, had Biden as the favorite to win the caucus. Meanwhile the betting sites are giving the advantage to Sanders, who has led in the most recent polls. The very last, important poll will not be released. Still, it seems likely that one of these two men will wind up the victor. If I had to bet, I’d bet it will be Sanders. I still think he has enough of an enthusiasm gap on Biden to make the difference. But it’s a very different situation than it was 4 years ago. He isn’t the only challenger left standing.

If either Biden or Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, I think there’s a good chance that that person will go on to win the nomination.

Inherent in this relatively genteel tone is the belief that the candidates have time to sharpen the distinctions among them. But recent Democratic primaries indicate that they might not. In the past four contested Democratic primaries—2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016—the winner in Iowa has gone on to capture the nomination each time. The winnowing process has been swift and merciless: As I’ve calculated, in these four races combined, Democratic candidates who did not first win either Iowa or New Hampshire have won a total of just five states—and of those, three were the home or neighboring states of the candidates who won them. Not since 1992 have Democrats had a primary race in which more than two candidates won multiple states well into the process.

Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic

The next tier of candidates seem to be betting on the race lasting long enough to make a mark. That may or may not be the case.

Beware of Paradoxical Results

This section was expanded a bit and moved here: What’s the Matter with Iowa.

If you’re interested in the original version, it’s not very different, but it’s preserved here: Paradoxical Results

References

Iowa Results, Live

3:52 pm: You know what happens when you assume; I thought the Caucus was tomorrow, but as I was working on a companion piece, Prelude to Iowa I discovered that results were already coming in. So I’ll jump back and forth between the two posts. Prelude to Iowa will be published when there’s something complete enough to share.

Early Lead for Sanders: We already have some results as the good folks in Ottumwa caucused earlier today. The final tally was 9 for Bernie Sanders, 6 for Elizabeth Warren and 3 for Pete Buttigeig. Klobuchar and Yang had some support in the first alignment but neither was viable. M*A*S*H fans will remember Ottumwa as the home town of Radar O’Reilly. I’m sure Walter would be proud.

6:08 pm: It sounds like Amy Klobuchar has won a satellite caucus somewhere in Florida. If there’s a surprise tonight, it will be her beating expectations, but I don’t think she’ll break into the top tier, NY Times endorsement or no.

7:00 pm: Prelude to Iowa is now live. More to come, only “How do the Caucuses Work?” is done for now.

7:53 pm: “Beware of Paradoxical Results” has been added to Prelude to Iowa. The caucuses are set to start any minute, I’m going to start paying attention to the news coverage.

8:00 pm: Turnout sounds high, possibly 15% over last year? That would be good news for Sanders.

8:03 pm: Biden group looks tiny in Iowa City. Entrance polls indicate a 4 way race, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg.

8:16 pm: Nicole Wallace just claimed that traditionally Democrats are married to substance over elect-ability. That seems wrong. Lots of candidates look strong in Des Moines. MSNBC is promising full first and final alignment results.

8:33 pm: In Debuque, Warren and Klobuchar missed viability at least on the first alignment. Buttigeig is ahead of everybody there.

8:50 pm: Klobuchar will probably beat expectations. Based on the buzz the surprise might be bigger than I thought.

There’s a woman on the tv now making a strong case for Warren.

Record turnout on a number of different places. Oldest group is looking smaller while the youngest group is getting bigger. All good news for Sanders.


The difference between the under 30 and over 65 groups is stunning.

9:18 pm: There seems to be a lot of Amy/Pete synergy.

9:23 pm: Pete looks like he’s a lot of people’s #2. Could that be enough to push him to the top?

9:31 pm: Pete and Amy kill it in Clive, IA. Biden and Warren still viable. Bernie didn’t make viability there.

9:50 pm: There’s very little data being released. In Cedar Falls only Sanders, Warren and Buttgeig are viable. The formula for assigning delegates appears to be really complicated.

This lack of data is getting kind of tedious. I wonder if they’re worried about the different narratives the three different sets of numbers will tell.

11:20 pm: Finally something is happening. Klobuchar took the stage. This is smart. If no one else does, it will get tons of airplay.

11:30 pm: The secretary from Iowa Precinct 1-1 could not get his smart phone app to work and has been on hold to the “hotline” for over two hours.

12:19 pm: It’s a shame that Elizabeth Warren’s speech was tape delayed; it’s probably the strongest one of the night.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting any results tonight. That’s not a good look for the Iowa Caucus; there’s already talk about whether on not there will even be a Caucus in four years. If the nomination comes down to delegates from Iowa, we’ll all be up to our asses in conspiracy theories.

It could be doubly delayed, Biden’s lawyer sent the Iowa Democratic Party a letter wanting to see the results before they are released. That’s not a good look for the Biden campaign, although without any data what-so-ever it may tell us all we need to know about how he did tonight.

Pete: “Iowa you have shocked the nation!” That made me laugh really hard. He’s the last major candidate to speak I think, and they all did okay, but Warren still wins.

Good night!

Image Credits:

  • Featured Image: Citizensharp [Public domain]

Adventures in Punditry

I like trying things I haven’t done before. A few years ago I got my one and only speeding ticket and I attended the court date. I’d never been to court before and it was interesting.

About two weeks ago, Steve Coleman, who was a Vice-President at Elmira College, invited me to be a guest on his local public affairs program. Steve’s been doing this sort of thing for years as a self-styled “Ph. D. of Politics.” Coleman and Company is now a weekly half-hour webcast that appears on Sunday evenings on MyTwinTiers.com, the website for the local WETM-18 news. Steve puts together an interesting show and it’s worth checking out.

And this isn’t just something new, this is something I’ve always wanted to try. I’m a politics junkie and I’ve been watching things like the McLaughlin Group or Face the Nation or The Rachel Maddow Show for years. I’ve done my share of groaning at the teevee and doing arm chair punditry inside my own brain (“Eleanor! Pat’s just trying to wind you up! Don’t take the bait!!”). I always thought it looked like fun.

If you’re at all curious, the process was straightforward. Steve e-mailed his plan for the show to us on Sunday with an update on Tuesday so we’d know what to expect: presidential politics, impeachment, Iran and then our own chance to sound off on something.

Over-Preparation

I probably over prepared. Then Joanne and I showed up at the studio about a half hour before we were set to tape on Thursday. We got to meet Denis Kingsley, the other guest, who is a real gentleman. Seeing the inside of the studio reminded me of my trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The tour took us through Mission Control and standing in these spaces is utterly unlike what you’d expect.

We took our places and started the taping; taped, incidentally, “before a live studio audience” thanks to Joanne.

I probably should have cut Eleanor some slack. A lot of the stuff I’d thought about beforehand got left on the table because it was nowhere in my brain to be found when I needed it. I think my biggest missed opportunity was after Denis asserted that Elizabeth Warren would be unelectable if she got the nomination. I should have pointed out that the person the democrats really wanted to run against in 1980 was Ronald Reagan; they thought he’d be easy to beat. And no one seemed to honestly believe that Donald Trump could get the Republican nomination much less win the presidency in 2016. Some folks remained in denial until the electoral college actually voted. That, too, is why we have elections.

But this was a lovely experience. It was great fun and I really have to thank Steve for the opportunity. Unlike traffic court, I’d happily do this again.

So now I’m a bona fide “political analyst and commentator.” Coleman and Company featuring yours truly in the role of “company” will be available Sunday the 22nd between 4:30 and 5:00 pm here.