Going into the Iowa caucuses, there was only one certainty: Nobody knew what was going to happen. Less expected was the idea that, 12 hours after the counting began, we still wouldn’t know what happened.
On the Democratic side, the apparent winner is Hillary Clinton. "Apparent" because at least one news outlet put a tiny check mark next to her name. The reality is a little more complicated.
With 99% of precincts reporting, the difference is a fraction of a percentage point, Clinton at 49.9% and Sanders at 49.5%. Many news outlets—regardless of tiny check marks—are still saying the race is too close to call.
In most elections, that kind of margin would be cause for a recount. But this was a caucus, not an election, and because of the ridiculous way that Iowa Democrats conduct their business, any attempt to reassess the results would be like trying to recreate 1,681 flash mobs.
So where does that leave us? Essentially with a tie.
The Clinton campaign proclaimed victory early, but then the former secretary of state gave a speech and did no such thing. Moreover, the Clinton campaign didn't protest when Sanders took the stage at his own rally and declared a “virtual tie.”
Yet, there was still drama. The Sanders campaign complained that the Democratic National Committee had failed to staff as many as 90 precincts across Iowa, leaving the reporting of delegate counts (the way support is measured in the Iowa caucuses) completely up to the campaigns. The DNC pushed back, saying it was not taking results from campaigns.
In addition, The Des Moines Register reports that as many as five delegate decisions were made using a coin toss.
How is that possible? The number of delegates in each precinct is determined by a formula based on the number of people who show up at the beginning of the caucus. In some cases, precincts ended up with an extra delegate to assign because the number of supporters counted at the beginning of the caucus was greater than the number of supporters pledged to a candidate at the end.
The Clinton and Sanders campaigns agreed to award those extra delegates by coin toss, the results of which would determine who could count the extra delegate in a second formula for determining something called a State Delegate Equivalency.
If that sounds confusing to you, it’s probably just because you hate democracy. According to the Register, the Clinton campaign won all five coin tosses.
So what does this all mean for the rest of the Democratic race? Nobody knows. There is no real parallel in the history of the modern Democratic primary schedule.
What we do know is that everyone’s attention now shifts to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, where polling puts Sanders ahead by 18 to 30 points. If Iowa continues to be described as a “tie” and Sanders wins New Hampshire, Clinton will go into the next competition with no clear victories.
You might have heard that the next race is South Carolina, where Clinton has a sizable lead because of her popularity with African-American voters. Unfortunately for Clinton, this is incorrect. She may be up South Carolina, but before she gets there, she'll have to compete in yet another caucus state, Nevada.
That is important for two reasons: First, the Nevada Democratic caucuses are usually attended by a large number of union members, a demographic that Sanders does well with (though the largest union in the state has already endorsed Clinton). Second, there hasn’t been a lot of reliable polling out of Nevada.
Oh, yeah: Also Martin O’Malley dropped out last night.
On to the Republicans: The biggest takeaway from last night is that Donald Trump is a loser. Despite being up in nearly every poll leading up to the caucuses, Trump barely managed second place, coming in 3 points behind Sen. Ted Cruz.
So how did the guy known for touting his poll numbers on the campaign trail manage to underperform them by so much? If you asked someone that question Sunday, they would have told you that the only way Trump could lose was if turnout was disappointing and Trump's supporters turned out to be less enthusiastic than anticipated.
In other words, Trump could only lose if, ironically enough, his supporters were too low-energy.
On Monday, that logic got turned on its head. Turnout for the GOP caucus was the highest ever, and Trump voters showed up in droves. Trump actually received the second most votes in the caucus's history. It turns out the only thing more record-breaking than Iowa Republicans’ love for Trump is the even-more-record-breaking extent to which Iowa Republicans prefer someone else.
The internet delighted in Trump’s defeat by recirculating this vintage piece of Trump wisdom from 2013.
If Trump lost, who won? The easy answer is Cruz, who came in first. That might seem like an obvious conclusion given that he got the most votes and, unlike the Democratic caucus, Republicans do actually get to just vote for a candidate.
But it hasn’t always been that simple. In 2012, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum appeared virtually tied on caucus night, but, because of the arcana of how delegates were selected at the time, Ron Paul ended up with the most Iowa delegates to send to the GOP convention. This year Iowa Republicans changed their rules to avoid such machinations, so it’s safe to say Cruz is the winner.
Unless you ask the rest of the media, which has collectively decided that third is the new first. The big story for most news networks and political reporters was not so much Cruz’s victory as Sen. Marco Rubio’s unexpectedly strong third-place showing.
The logic is that Rubio, having decisively proven himself to be the candidate of the establishment, will be able to aggregate moderate support in New Hampshire and carry on from there. And Republicans do tend to coalesce around an establishment candidate.
There are just a few problems. The first is that, unlike in Iowa, Donald Trump is way up in New Hampshire, where polls have him consistently winning by as much as 25 points.
The other problem with the Rubio-mentum hypothesis is that the person who places consistently second in New Hampshire is Ted Cruz, who you might remember as the only person to actually win anything last night using the traditional definition of the word. That leaves Rubio sparring for 3 with three or four other establishment candidates, all of whom are within one or two points of each other.
All this to say that, even with a much more decisive victory than the Democrats, it’s still not clear that anybody really knows for certain what lies ahead for the Republican race either.
Oh, yeah, and Mike Huckabee dropped out, too.