HEADS OR TAILS?
Was Bernie Sanders Shortchanged in Iowa Coin Toss?
The senator’s supporters were generally happy with their candidate’s performance in the caucuses Monday night, but they couldn’t help wondering: Did their guy lose on a technicality?
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Sanders campaign is having a weird day.
Monday’s caucus results had something for everyone: a historically teensy margin of victory for Hillary Clinton and an overperformance from Bernie Sanders that has his backers giddy. But confusion, and disorganization at some caucusing locations—coupled with charges of scurrilous activity on the part of Clinton supporters—has made Sanders’s morning after a complicated one.
Here’s the thing: There was a lot of chaos Monday night, and it plausibly leaves room for Sanders’s backers to gain ground. They want to move on, but they don’t totally want to move on.
That’s because there may still be gains to be had. Story County Democratic Party chairwoman Jan Bauer said the results of at least one precinct in Ames will likely be challenged.
College students with minimal training and zero caucusing experience directed voting in several precincts in the city, and that seemed to give their older fellow Democrats a little heartburn. While votes were under way, Bauer said she worried would-be voters were being turned away because precincts ran out of voter registration forms.
And Bauer joked that the presence of paid Clinton staff—who controversially played a role in managing one precinct—could have made things go more smoothly.
“We could have used some staff in that one precinct!” she said with a laugh.
Clinton’s lead over Sanders is so minuscule that every precinct matters. And some precincts descended into near-bedlam. Yahoo News reported that outside observers were temporarily kicked out of a caucus location at Drake University. One longtime Iowa politics reporter described the situation there as “ridiculously crowded.” And voters told Yahoo that turnout there was three times that of 2008.
And high turnout can cause problems. Lewis Rother, volunteer caucus organizer in Ames, told The Daily Beast that some rural precincts near the city had two or three times as many caucus-goers as they did in 2008.
“Most of our precincts in Story County hit or exceeded the turnout from ’08, which is phenomenal,” he said. “To be honest, we weren’t expecting that.”
High turnout, of course, means precinct places are more likely to run out of voter registration forms and kick out outside observers to free up space. And it means that managing a caucus is even trickier than usual—especially for college students who have no firsthand experience directing one of the most complex voting processes in American politics.
“There was supposed to be someone from the Iowa Democratic Party staff who was supposed to come up and hold their hand through the day,” Rother said of one student-run precinct. “But that didn’t materialize.”
And millennials weren’t the only ones feeling the Bern.
“It wasn’t just the student districts,” Rother noted. “We had large turnout throughout the city of Ames, where they ran out of registration forms and had to get more copies.”
The night generated tons of caucus drama, including half a dozen coin tosses—all won by Clinton—to determine results. The next day, Sanders’s campaign telegraphed veiled frustration. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver told The Washington Post that Team Bernie was “looking into a few other issues” and was doubtful that it would “ever know what the actual result was.”
Some Sanders backers seemed similarly irked.
Winnie Wong, who traveled to Iowa to do pro-Bernie work with National Nurses United, said the coin-flipping didn’t speak well of American politics.
“The fact that you could determine a victory by six coin flips is a flaw—it’s outright weird, you know?” she said. “What does that say to other countries looking at America?”
But she said it hasn’t gotten people too down.
“The perception amongst Bernie supporters is that we have momentum here,” she said. “We do not feel defeated. We are charging ahead in a very organized and focused manner.”
Tyson Manker, who heads Veterans for Bernie, said volunteers may soon be sick of hearing about Iowa’s precincts.
“That’s a heck of a thing for an establishment candidate who started over a year ago 60 points up to win by a coin toss,” he said, adding that there’s minimal appetite to re-litigate Iowa’s results.
“We’re ready to move on,” he said. “I’m entirely satisfied with the results, and I think it would just be a waste of energy. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the battleground states ahead.”
With the New Hampshire primary just a week away, they don’t have much time—certainly not enough to spend arguing about coin flips.