Since the Iowa Democratic caucuses are a representative democracy, not a straight one person one vote, not every caucus goer carries equal weight. Several of the candidates have spent a lot of time in small courthouse towns. Amy Klobuchar and the hapless John Delaney have completed the "Full Grassley" 99 county tour. That's because the way the results are counted, the small counties weigh in disproportionately.
The delegate allocation formula is based on past general election voting for the top of the ticket. The caucuses take place in a mythical, projected version of a general election voting population. This cycle, it's based on votes for Hillary Clinton and Fred Hubbell; four years ago it was based on Jack Hatch and on Barack Obama's 2012 total.
This means candidates can't run up the score with big wins in big counties, and it mutes the impact of isolated turnout waves. No matter how many people show up, the same number of delegates are at stake.
The problem is, some counties are full of go-to-meeting activists who are more likely to attend a caucus. Others have more people who may vote, sometimes even for Democrats, but are otherwise less active.
You may not call that a problem - indeed, some caucus old timers will tell you that the formula, which is locked into the Iowa Democratic Party's constitution, was specifically designed to under-count the student vote in Iowa City, Ames, and other college towns.
Obviously, from my perspective, that's a problem. In fact, the obscure allocation formula likely skewed the national interpretation of the outcome of 2016.
Hillary Clinton won a razor-close margin of the state delegate equivalents (SDEs), the only total that the Iowa Democratic Party has historically released. However, Bernie Sanders won big margins in the college towns - which, as you'll see, had a higher share of the turnout than they did of the delegates. In fact, I'll go so far as to say Sanders probably had more bodies in the room than Clinton, and you know I'm not saying that out of any love for Bernie Sanders.
The impact of this under-allocation of delegates to high turnout areas is mitigated somewhat by new DNC rules this year that will require, in a first for Iowa Democrats, the reporting of a one person one vote raw vote count. But the delegate count still matters toward the nomination and to perceptions. The Associated Press announced this week, wrongly in my opinion, that they will "declare the winner of the Iowa caucuses based on the number of state delegate equivalents each candidate receives."
That means my vote in high turnout Johnson County will matter less than the vote of an Iowan in a low turnout rural county. But exactly how much less will it matter?
An analysis of 2016 caucus attendance shows that, on average statewide, it took just over 122 people to elect a state delegate equivalent. But that varied dramatically by county, and (while I won't dive into details) by precinct within counties.
The easiest place to elect a delegate was Fremont County, where it took 45.33 attendees to elect a state delegate equivalent. Five other counties were at or below 61 people per SDE, less than half the statewide average. The bottom ten is filled with small, rural, population losing, Republican counties.
And as always, the same places stood out as the most difficult places to elect a delegate: campus communities most of all, urban areas, and high growth suburbs.
Four counties are bunched at the top, in a near dead heat. In these places, you needed 211 to 213 people to earn a SDE - nearly twice the state average and 4.7 times Fremont County. Put another way, a vote in Fremont County was worth nearly five times as much as a vote in these four counties.
Jefferson County, with its very active meditator community and Maharishi International University, was at the very top at 213.22. Story and Johnson, home to the two biggest Regents universities, were number 2 and number 4. Poweshiek County was third - and that statistic was almost entirely driven by the 935 people who attended the caucus for the Grinnell College precinct.
In Winneshiek, home to Decorah's Luther College, it took 154.64 people to elect a state delegate equivalent, putting them in fifth place (they were the hardest place to earn an SDE in 2008).
Another half dozen counties were above the state average of 122 voters per SDE. Two were the two biggest in the state, Polk and Linn. Two were in rural outlier counties, Decatur and Sioux, where the novelty of having a large number of Democrats in one place may have spurred attendance (though the county grand totals are still far below an east side Iowa City precinct).
And two were in high growth suburban Dallas and Warren counties. High growth makes it harder to elect a delegate from your county. A voter who moved to Dallas County three years ago won't count in the county's presidential vote totals used to calculate delegates, because they voted somewhere else. A voter who moved in after the gubernatorial election wouldn't count at all toward the delegate count.
The flip side is, people in shrinking rural counties who moved away or passed away still contribute to the county's delegate allocation, meaning it takes fewer LIVE bodies to win delegates.
Ultimately, the apportionment rules mean candidates have to carefully allocate their resources and fight on all fronts at once, and part of that allocation is making the effort where the most bang for the buck is available -- the small towns.
Is that fair? Depends on where you live. I'd like to see someone take on the formula at the state convention this June. If we're going to keep having a caucus, which I don't think we should, we could at least get closer to one person one vote. If the rural counties don't like it, they can do what my county does and show up.
State Delegates and Caucus Attendance, 2016 Democratic Caucuses
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