Media Falsely Attribute Clinton Iowa Caucuses Win To Coin Flips


Media figures are erroneously attributing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses to her wins in coin tosses held at several precincts to determine the apportionment of unassigned delegates. Media figures claiming that coin tosses could have flipped the outcome misunderstand the caucus process by wrongly conflating county-level delegates -- which the coin tosses assign -- and state delegate equivalents (SDEs). As The Des Moines Register explained, the coin flips "had an extremely small effect on the overall outcome."

Clinton Declared Winner Of Iowa Caucuses With The Most State Delegate Equivalents

Iowa Democratic Party: Clinton Won The Iowa Caucuses By Capturing The Most State Delegate Equivalents. Following the February 1 Iowa caucuses, the Iowa Democratic Party announced that Clinton won 700.59 SDEs. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) finished in a close second with 696.82 SDEs, while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley received 7.61 SDEs:

According to the final results announced by the Iowa Democratic Party, Mrs. Clinton was awarded 700.59 state delegate equivalents, the terminology used in Iowa to represent candidates' share of the total caucus vote. Mr. Sanders was awarded 696.82 delegates, and former Gov. Martin O'Malley received 7.61 delegates. Iowa Democrats usually do not release raw vote counts from each of the state's 1,681 caucus precincts.

Based on these results, Mrs. Clinton is set to receive 23 of Iowa's delegates and Mr. Sanders will earn 21 delegates. There are 4,763 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, so it will require 2,382 delegates to win the nomination. [The New York Times, 2/2/16]

Clinton Won "A Handful" Of "County-Level Delegates" Via Coin Toss, Not State Delegate Equivalents

The Des Moines Register: Coin Flips Assign "County-Level Delegates" And Have An "Extremely Small Effect On The Overall Outcome." A February 2 article in The Des Moines Register explained that coin tosses assign spare county-level delegates -- not the SDEs "that are reported in the final results" -- and that county-level delegates are so numerous that assigning a small number of them via coin toss "had an extremely small effect on the overall outcome":

In a handful of Democratic caucus precincts Monday, a delegate was awarded with a coin toss.

It happened in precinct 2-4 in Ames, where supporters of candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton disputed the results after 60 caucus participants apparently disappeared from the proceedings.

As a result of the coin toss, Clinton was awarded an additional delegate, meaning she took five of the precinct's eight, while Sanders received three.

Similar situations played out at various precincts across the state, but had an extremely small effect on the overall outcome, in which Clinton won 49.9 percent of statewide delegate equivalents, while Sanders won 49.5 percent. The delegates that were decided by coin flips were delegates to the party's county conventions, of which there are thousands selected across the state from 1,681 separate precincts. They were not the statewide delegate equivalents that are reported in the final results.

The statewide delegate equivalents that determine the outcome on caucus night are derived from the county-level delegates, but are aggregated across the state and weighted in a manner that makes individual county delegate selections at a handful of precincts count for a tiny fraction of the ultimate result. [The Des Moines Register, 2/2/16]

Wash. Post's The Fix: Clinton Didn't "Earn Her Four-Delegate Statewide Margin" With Coin Flips. A February 2 post from The Washington Post's The Fix blog explained that people may be "forgiven for assuming that Clinton earned her four-delegate statewide margin ... via coin toss. But she didn't." The post continued:

Given the closeness of the race and the complexity of the caucus system, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Clinton earned her four-delegate statewide margin with six delegates earned via coin toss. But she didn't.

The Iowa caucus process is thoroughly complicated, from start to finish. What matters here is that the delegates that were won with the coin toss were not actual convention delegates but county delegates. The tally that Clinton won by four delegates was "state delegate equivalents," a calculation that estimates how many delegates to the state Democratic convention will result from each side's winning enough county delegates. There were nearly 1,700 precincts that held caucuses on Monday and in most of them, according to the blog Bleeding Heartland, four or more county delegates were identified. That's thousands more county delegates than the 1,400 delegates that will go to the state convention -- where the actual delegates that attend the nominating convention in Philadelphia will be chosen.

Or put another way, it's like Clinton won six jump balls in the first game of the NCAA tournament, not that she was awarded free throws in the finals. [The Washington Post, The Fix, 2/2/16]

Former Iowa Democratic Executive Director: It's An "'Absolute Certainty" That Coin Tosses Did Not Determine Caucuses Outcome. Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, told The Atlantic he was certain the outcome was not determined by coin tosses:

Games of chance have been included in the Democratic caucus rules "forever," said Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the state part who oversaw the nominating contests in 2008 and 2012. "It happens, but it's not frequent," he said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. They usually occur when calculations for electing delegates to the county convention result in an extra delegate that can't be assigned to one candidate by simply rounding up or down. The county delegates are distinct from the "state delegation equivalents," which is what the party uses to determine how many delegates each candidates secures for the national convention in Philadelphia. Clinton finished with 700.59 state delegate equivalents to 696.82 for Sanders, yet because county delegates are worth a "tiny fraction" of the state delegates, Sterzenbach said he could say "with absolute certainty" that the coin flips did not determine the outcome in Iowa. [The Atlantic, 2/2/16]

Media Erroneously Assume That Different Coin Toss Outcomes Could Have Closed The State Delegate Equivalent Gap Between Clinton And Sanders

NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd: "Basically We're Talking A Coin Flip May Have Decided The Presidency." NBC News' Todd erroneously claimed on the February 2 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe that "if you do the math" and "had Sanders won every coin flip, he wins this whole thing," apparently conflating county-level delegates with SDEs to suggest that a handful of coin tosses could have flipped the outcome:

CHUCK TODD: When something is that close -- by the way, you know, we've seen stories about the coin flips that decide the little thing. I think, if you do the math, she won every coin flip. Had Sanders won every coin flip, he wins this whole thing.


TODD: I mean, can you imagine? Let's say she is the person that takes the oath, you know.


TODD: Basically we're talking a coin flip may have decided the presidency. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 2/2/16]

Fox News Correspondent Shannon Bream Speculates Five Coin Tosses Could Have Flipped Outcome. During the February 2 edition of The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson, Fox News correspondent Shannon Bream speculated that coin tosses may have been "how the Clinton campaign got to victory with that razor-thin margin." Bream also inaccurately reported that coin tosses determined precinct winners; instead, the coin toss assigns a county-level delegate, which may or may not determine the winner of a precinct depending on how other county-level delegates at the precinct were assigned:

SHANNON BREAM: Our understanding is that it happened at at least five precincts, so if that is how the Clinton campaign got to victory with that razor-thin margin, you know the Sanders folks are arguing, 'Hm, maybe if those coin tosses had gone a little differently, maybe we would technically be the winner.' Tough to know, but so far, for now, the official victory goes tothe former secretary of state, Mrs. Hillary Clinton. [Fox News, The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson, 2/2/16]

Fox's Sean Hannity Falsely Claims Coin Tosses Assign SDEs. During the February 2 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show, Fox's Sean Hannity inaccurately explained that "you take out those six coin tosses that Hillary won with six extra delegates, you get 695 delegates for Bernie and 693 for Hillary, which means that Sanders actually won":

SEAN HANNITY: As of early this morning, Clinton had been awarded 699 state delegate equivalents, Sanders 695. And it does not appear at this point that he could make up the difference. Except you take out those six coin tosses that HIllary won with six extra delegates, you get 695 delegates for Bernie and 693 for Hillary, which means that Sanders actually won. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Sean Hannity Show, 2/2/16]

National Review Online Contributor Jim Geraghty: Clinton's "Win Literally Secured By Coin Tosses." On Twitter, National Review Online contributor Jim Geraghty, who writes NRO's Campaign Spot blog, claimed the coin tosses "secured" Clinton's victory:

Drudge Report: "America On A Coin Toss." From a February 2 headline on Drudge Report:

[Drudge Report, 2/2/16]

Fox's Neil Cavuto: Coin Tosses "Tipped The Scales" To Clinton. During the February 2 edition of Your World, host Neil Cavuto erroneously claimed that "no fewer" than six coin tosses "tipped the scales" in Clinton's favor:

NEIL CAVUTO (HOST): All right, man oh man, was this weird or what? This was acted out no fewer than six times in Iowa yesterday in Democratic precincts where the race was simply too close to call. They had a toss of the coin to see who won. There were six tosses of the coin I understand, Hillary Clinton won all of them, and that tipped the scales to her in what was one of the tightest, in fact the tightest Iowa caucuses results we have seen ever. I mean, like ever. Ed Henry now on that battle that technically had Hillary Clinton looking like the winner here, but anything but where he is over in Newport, New Hampshire, now. Ed.

ED HENRY: That's right, Neil. Well, the battle is joined here now, as you say. Hillary Clinton last night -- I was there, it was a surreal scene in Des Moines, as these results were coming in amid the coin tosses and coin flips, the numbers kept getting tighter and tighter. Hillary Clinton's lead over Bernie Sanders had been a few points, and by the end, was less than one percentage point, as you know. And the bottom line is Hillary Clinton came out as very awkward in Des Moines at her victory party, because basically she came out without declaring victory and just said I'm breathing a sigh of relief. That was the closest she came to saying she won. But then here in New Hampshire, she made clear after some news organizations came outovernight, the Iowa Democratic Party suggesting that Bernie Sanders, even though there are some precincts out there, simply cannot catch up. She decided to make it clear that she won in Iowa and is now focused right here on the Granite State. [Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 2/2/16]

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