big ad

kaus files dot com logo

Those Strange Iowa Results

What was the secretive VNS up to?


Posted Saturday, January 29, 2000

        An earlier kausfiles item ("Paul Simon: You May Already Have Won,") noted that the Iowa Democratic caucus count in 1988--the last time, before this one, that the state saw a contest on the Democratic side--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 were this year's Iowa caucuses any better? I called the network's current vote-counting cooperative, now known as the Voter News Service, last Monday 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 wasn't repeated. The focus this year was on the official Democratic results, as measured in "delegate equivalents." Whatever info the shadowy VNS provided (entrance polls, or actual caucus counts in select precincts) was apparently directed at allowing an early estimate of those official results. And the VNS (at least according to MSNBC) didn't make the attempt to count "pre-viability" votes that turned into such a joke in 1988.

        Don't expect the VNS to be on such good behavior forever. Because this year's Democratic race was a competitive two-person contest, the "viability" question was largely moot--there are unlikely to have been many instances where either Bradley or Gore failed to muster a "viable" number of supporters. But if in, say, 2004 there are five or six Democrats running for President, the networks will be tempted to go in and try to count the trailing candidates' supporters before they are declared "non-viable" and reallocated. There's little reason to think the VNS will do a better job then than in '88, especially if nobody can find out what it's up to.

        (I'm indebted to Slate's Will Saletan, who wrote a definitive American Politics article on the 1988 Iowa fraud, for the last point.)

        Follow-up: The following query was lodged by reader William Shuman in Slate's "The Fray":

Why are the actual numbers of voters not more prominently reported? I do not consider it very significant that Mr. Gore garnered a thousand or so votes in Iowa. Why does MSNBC think it is a big deal when it's not?

        This has been a point of much confusion. Don Imus apparently wondered at length on his radio show why the vote totals (for example, those on MSNBC) were so low--with Bradley getting "698" and Gore getting "1,269." The answer is that those numbers are not vote totals. They are the number of delegates each candidate is projected to have at Iowa's state convention, which will in turn choose Iowa's delegates to the Democratic convention. The percentage figures you see bandied about in the press aren't vote percentages either--they're percentages of these same state convention delegates.

        Why weren't actual vote counts given? Because the state party doesn't tally them--all it cares about are the delegates. (If it counted votes, that would make Iowa a "primary," and New Hampshire would be pissed.) Why shouldn't the press go in and count the actual votes at the caucuses? Because this is a Herculean task. Not only do all the individual caucuses have to be covered, but whoever is covering them has to accurately count various shifting groups of supporters in a crowded room in the instant before some of them are declared "non-viable" and dispersed. That's why the press--in the form of the TV networks' vote-counters--royally screwed it up when such a count was previously attempted. (See here.)

        But if the press isn't going to count votes, it should make clear that the totals it is reporting aren't vote totals--a task at which it failed miserably this year. MSNBC is the only site I've seen that even makes an attempt (in a murky footnote).

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

        New E-mail service: Sign up, using the ListBot gizmo below, and you will be notified by e-mail whenever there's a new item on [Note: this service is free. You'll be asked a couple of demographic questions; if you find them annoying just leave them unanswered.]

Join the mailing list!
Enter your email address below,
then click the 'Join List' button:
Powered by ListBot

Gore's Secret Weapon

posted 08.03.99

        Recently archived:

        Jeffrey Toobin, Hypocrite, Part III! How dare Isikoff write a book, says Toobin in his book.

        Drop the Big One Plus more Toobin sleaze, special travel bonus.

        Not Gotcha Why Gore's gay flip was a genuine gaffe.

        Pay Up, Shrum! Litmus test flip-flop smoking gun.

        Jeffrey Toobin, Hypocrite 'Tawdry voyeurism,' anyone?

        Cuomo Family Values Did Mario raise his son to be Hillary's Boy?

        DeParle Gets Half the Story The NYT doesn't tell us what we need to know about Milwaukee's poor.

        Et tu, TNR? Nobody's being fair to the poor House Republicans.

        Dumb and Dumber! Two NYT embarrassments in one day.

        Bill Clinton Wants You on Welfare! Is this the dole administration after all?

        The Pornographer Who Didn't Bark Why wouldn't Flynt bust Newt?

        Yes, There Are Easy Answers! The NYT and WaPo find a quick fix for affirmative action.

        Who Stole Nissan's Cojones? Jerry Hirshberg'a got a lot of ... chutzpah!

        Doesn't Anyone Want to Be Famous? The political opportunity of a lifetime.

        Wolf Cries Wolf Naomi goes "oppo" without the research.

        The Ending of the Black Underclass, Part XVIII African-American welfare receipt falls to new low.

        Righteous Centrist Bradley's un-sweeping anti-poverty plan.

        Just Buzz Me! Synergy City! Harvey Weinstein plans a TV show based on Talk.

        Is Daniel Patrick Moynihan the Devil? A review of the evidence to date.

        Harvey Scores Again! An exciting new Talk contest.

        Is It Over? Clinton's Pathetic Second Term Revealing the one Big Thing he still might accomplish.

        Maybe Bush Didn't Snort Coke -- Maybe He Dropped Acid! One solution to the Bush drug mystery.

        George Bush, Drug Pioneer? Bush's pharmacological time-line seems a little ... out of the mainstream.

        Will Tina Fire Lucinda? Talk and truth.

Copyright 2000 Mickey Kaus.

In Association with