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Satellite Caucuses Give A Surprise Boost To Sanders In Iowa

UPDATE (Feb. 7, 2020, 8:28 a.m.): With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Buttigieg still leads Sanders by 1.5 state delegate equivalents. However, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has called for a recanvass of the results, which appear to have misallocated some delegates. And the Associated Press has announced it will not declare a winner for the foreseeable future, so it could be awhile before we have a final verdict on who won Iowa.

In a stunning turn of events, Sen. Bernie Sanders is threatening to take the lead in the measure of Iowa Democratic caucus results that has traditionally been used to declare a winner. After a vote update late last night, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg now leads Sanders by only three state delegate equivalents. In percentage terms, that’s 26.2 percent to 26.1 percent — significantly tighter than the 2-point race it was earlier in the day on Wednesday.

With 97 percent of precincts now reporting, here are the full results, including state delegate equivalents, first alignment voter preference and final alignment voter preference:

Preliminary results from the Iowa caucuses

First alignment, final alignment and state delegate equivalents (SDEs) in the Iowa Democratic caucuses with about 97 percent of precincts reporting

Buttigieg 21% 25% 26%
Sanders 25 27 26
Warren 19 20 18
Biden 15 14 16
Klobuchar 13 12 12
Yang 5 1 1
Steyer 2 0 0
Uncommitted 1 1 0
Patrick 0 0 0
Gabbard 0 0 0
Bennet 0 0 0
Bloomberg 0 0 0

Source: Iowa Democratic Party

There’s now real suspense over whether Sanders or Buttigieg will finish first by state delegate equivalents. On one hand, it doesn’t matter that much as both candidates will get more national convention delegates that their competitors. On the other hand, there is a psychological boost (not to mention a hefty dose of media buzz) that comes with finishing first. And up until this point, Buttigieg has largely been treated as the winner of Iowa by the media even though Sanders has led in both measures of the popular vote in Iowa. If Sanders were also to lead on the state delegate equivalents metric, however, that would remove any ambiguity caused by a split verdict.

So how has Sanders pulled even with Buttigieg? By doing extremely well at satellite caucuses, or the alternative caucus sites for people who couldn’t make a regular caucus (e.g., people who live out of state, or locals who simply couldn’t go on Monday evening). Satellite caucuses are unique among caucus sites because they aren’t worth a set number of state delegate equivalents; instead, each satellite caucus’s state-delegate-equivalent value is determined by how many people attended it.

A savvy campaign might have realized the potential to run up its state-delegate-equivalent score by encouraging its supporters to attend satellite caucuses, and that seems to be what the Sanders campaign did; according to The Intercept, it devoted a lot of effort to getting out the vote at satellite sites, while no other campaign paid the satellites much heed. Apparently, it paid off: So far, Sanders has gotten 21.855 state delegate equivalents out of the satellite caucus sites, and Buttigieg has gotten 1.196.

Until last night, each new batch of results was barely changing the candidates’ vote shares, and we (and pretty much everyone else) assumed that the remaining precincts in Iowa were representative of the rest of the state. But the satellite caucuses were clearly not representative, and that is why Sanders now has a shot at being the sole victor in Iowa.

But Buttigieg could still hold on. We are now awaiting the results in just 54 Iowa precincts. About a dozen of those are satellite caucuses, which could be enough to put Sanders over the top — but the remainder are regular old caucus sites, where Buttigieg is expected to do well. And then there have been reports of minor errors in the way delegates are being allocated, which normally wouldn’t make a huge difference, but in a race decided by only a few state delegate equivalents, it very well might. Just like in a regular election where the margins are razor thin and officials move to a recount, you can expect these results to be closely audited, maybe even challenged by the campaigns. So even though we could have results from all precincts very soon, we may not know the “true” winner in Iowa (by the state delegate equivalents measure) for quite some time.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: The results in Iowa.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.