Four days after the Iowa caucuses took place, no victor has been declared and the vote remains mired in controversy and irregularities. But if you’ve been watching CNN for the last few days, you could be excused for imagining Pete Buttigieg had won.
Some at CNN simply took it as fact that Buttigieg had won Iowa—like David Axelrod, who declared (2/4/20): “The way he won in Iowa, and I think he was trying to make this point here, is a road map.” CNN anchor Jim Sciutto, ready to discuss the impact of an undeclared race, asked senior analyst Harry Enten: “Pete Buttigieg, you know, he’s a winner by a slim margin. Do we see a bounce there?”
While the declared winner, based on “State Delegate Equivalents,” remains uncertain, it has become increasingly clear that Bernie Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa—at last count, by more than 6,000 votes in the first round, or 3.5% of total votes cast; in the final alignment, in which supporters of non-viable candidates go with a second choice, Sander leads by 2,600 votes and 1.6 percentage points. The SDE is an intermediary calculation between the popular vote and the national delegates; rather than directly translating between the two, it advantages rural precincts, which is why a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the SDEs.
In the past, journalists had no other information to go on, so they took the SDE as the sole measure of victory. But now that, under pressure after the 2016 caucus debacle, the party is releasing more information about the vote totals, journalists have a choice about what to emphasize—and CNN has clearly chosen to stick with the SDEs, in which Buttigieg had the slimmest of leads.
Anchor Wolf Blitzer warned viewers away from taking the popular vote seriously (2/4/20): “But remember, the popular vote is interesting, but it’s the state delegates who will determine the winner of the Iowa caucuses.” He then threw it to CNN political director David Chalian, who concurred:
[Sanders] wanted this popular vote total reported, because they understood they could run up the score, let’s say with the young people in college towns. But the way that the caucuses work, Wolf, is that if you have support everywhere across the state, you can collect more delegates, and that’s the important metric for who wins.
It’s obviously valid to report who takes more national delegates (which, throughout all these reports, was a tie between the top two—Buttigieg now leads by one). But the importance of Iowa, as all reporters know, is not the number of national delegates candidates come away with—Iowa has 41, out of a total of 3,979 awarded at the convention—it’s the momentum a candidate gets from their performance in Iowa. And reporters at CNN seemed quite eager to see Buttigieg get that bounce.
CNN‘s Chris Cuomo was a particularly enthusiastic booster of Buttigieg and the SDE count. On Wednesday (2/5/20), he told viewers:
I’ll tell you the popular vote. But SDE is what matters, the delegates…. Popular vote: We don’t follow it as a metric, why? Because like with the electoral college, it’s the delegates. That will make the biggest difference, who carries the most into the primary and into the convention into the state.
Cuomo also commended Buttigieg for declaring victory before any results were released: “He’s looking good, saying he won last night. The media was chirping all day. Now it seems to have been a good move for the Buttigieg campaign.” And the CNN anchor preempted any Sanders claim to the contrary:
Now the Sanders campaign will say, no, we have more votes than he does. Just like in the general election, you win through delegates, like the electoral college. And Buttigieg is leading. This is a huge boost to his campaign.
His guest Mitch Landrieu raved: “It was a big night for him and historically. This was the first openly gay candidate that’s ever run and won. That alone is a special moment.”
The next day (2/6/20), Cuomo again came to Buttigieg’s defense: “Buttigieg had the media nipping at his heels about saying he was victorious. He was right to say it. He got denied the bump he should have gotten for winning Iowa. But he was right.” When White House correspondent Abby Phillip noted that “Democrats were criticizing him for coming out and doing that on that night,” Cuomo interjected:
The audacity of hope, as it turns out, because now they all need to shut up. He wound up doing the best in Iowa, as far as we know…. Fortune favors the bold. He said, I think we’ll be victorious. It will be that way now, no matter how it shakes out.
Later, when Buttigieg came on his show (2/6/20), Cuomo introduced him as “unknown a year ago, now taking the stage tonight as the leader in the Iowa caucuses.” To launch the interview, Cuomo announced that
the Iowa Democratic Party just released the final batch of results from the caucuses, 100% of precincts reporting. You are holding a narrow lead of a tenth of a percentage point over Senator Sanders on the state delegate equivalents, which is the metric that we use to determine a winner. What is your reaction?
Buttigieg responded, “Oh, that’s fantastic news, to hear that we won.”
Of course, no winner had been declared at that point, because the results were so close (Buttigieg’s SDE lead stood at 0.1 percentage points) and there were many irregularities; the AP has still declined to officially declare a winner, and most of the rest of the media are following suit. But Cuomo declined to temper himself or his guest.
Cuomo was not the only one to praise Buttigieg for his victory speech. When anchor John Berman asked commentator Paul Begala about it, Begala replied (2/4/20):
I think it’s very smart. Again, he knows more than we do because he’s got volunteers and supporters in all of those caucuses…. So I like the fact that Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar did some of this as well, jump out quickly and say, hey, I actually did win, even though we have no idea if they did.
(Berman did not object to Begala’s praise.)
Sanders, on the other hand, was not given such a pass at CNN. Upon his (accurate) announcement that “in terms of the popular vote, we won a decisive victory,” CNN‘s Ryan Nobles (2/6/20) countered: “But the rules of the Iowa caucuses make it clear the winner is determined by the state delegate equivalent, not the popular vote.”
After judging both candidates’ declarations to be “premature,” Jake Tapper went on to only cast doubt on one of them (2/6/20):
But actually, the way that this is done, state delegates or state delegate equivalents, and Buttigieg is slightly ahead there, and this is done — this is a race for delegates, not a race for the popular vote.
Some are beginning to backtrack; on Wednesday (2/5/20), Jeff Zeleny, CNN‘s White House correspondent, reported that “there’s no question that Pete Buttigieg is still leading the way.” On Thursday morning (2/6/20), Zeleny was arguing that Buttigieg was “certainly pulling off an upset over Bernie Sanders” and “will certainly take this narrow almost victory.” By later in the day, however, as Buttigieg’s SDE lead shrank to 0.1 percentage points, Zeleny was walking back his analysis: “Essentially, it’s a wash. They’re going to split the number of delegates.”
But of course, by then the narrative had been established. While some lamented that Buttigieg didn’t get the lift he would have if the results had been clear from the start, it’s obvious now that the results are probably too close to ever be completely clear—which means that talking about only one candidate as the “winner” as preliminary results trickled out gave that candidate an unearned boost.
WaPo: The Iowa Democratic Party may have been more important in shaping the primary than Iowa voters
And corporate media may have been most influential of all (Washington Post, 2/6/20).
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump (2/6/20) noted that, in extremely close races, “incomplete election results can lead to incorrect perceptions of the outcome and even shape how the rest of the votes are counted”; the initially declared winner is able to approach the recount “from the position of having been the apparent winner based on the initial results, giving him leverage in any arguments about how things were progressing.”
Bump’s otherwise perceptive analysis had a glaring omission: the role of the media. He argued that “the political ecosystem” had been building up to the moment of the Iowa results release, so that when the initial 62% of results were released, they had been waiting anxiously for “any grist to start operating.” “Those machines were hungry for a winner so they could start grinding away, and now they had one.”
These “machines,” wrote Bump, were both literal—”bits of software aimed at processing race results and determining the direction of the primary race moving forward”—and figurative, “processes left over from past primaries or ones constructed with an eye toward the boundaries of the current primary field.”
Ah yes, the machines that the party knows will gobble up their incomplete results and spit out a winner, even when one doesn’t exist yet. If only we also had journalists in this political ecosystem, to thwart such senseless behavior.