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What the Iowa caucus means for the only count that counts: delegates

- February 2, 2016
A poster on the wall of a Democratic caucus meeting at South East Junior High School in Iowa City, IA. (Photo by John Sides)

Now that the Iowa caucus is over, much of the focus is on who won and lost — either outright or relative to expectations. But there is another lens through which the caucus results in Iowa can be viewed: the delegate count. This is the count that actually determines who will be the nominee.

There were 74 total delegates on the line last night. Iowa Democrats will ultimately allocate 44 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, and Iowa Republicans will send 30 bound delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Those are pretty small numbers. The Iowa share of Democratic delegates is just 1.1 percent. Iowa’s share of the 2472 total Republican delegates is 1.2 percent.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/02/winners-and-losers-from-the-iowa-caucuses/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_winnerslosers-1255am:homepage/story”]The Fix: Winners and Losers from the Iowa caucuses[/interstitial_link]

Iowa provides an even smaller share of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Ted Cruz’s projected 8 delegates is just 0.65 percent of what the Texas senator would need to win the Republican nomination.

For Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the virtual tie likely means an even split of the 44 delegates, just under 1 percent of what either would require to become the party’s nominee.

Iowa, then, is not really about delegates. There are delegates at stake, but not enough to make or break a campaign. Just one delegate separated first and third place in the likely Iowa Republican allocation. Cruz will get his eight delegates while Trump and Rubio will each get seven. In terms of delegates, there really isn’t any daylight between the top candidates in either party.

Here’s another key point: Iowa delegates are relatively easy to count. The Republican Party of Iowa was forced by a change in Republican National Committee rules to bind the delegates based on the results of the precinct caucuses. This is a departure from the non-binding straw poll that had been typical for the party previously. Replacing that was a truly proportional allocation plan with no threshold of support required to qualify for delegates.

So there is no guesswork in how precinct caucus support will translate into delegate support for the Republican candidates. There will be no Mitt Romney winning caucus night, Rick Santorum winning two weeks later upon certification, and Ron Paul winning a majority bloc of the Iowa delegates who attend the national convention in Tampa. There are no fantasy delegates in Iowa in 2016.

And although the Democratic delegate rules in Iowa are more intricate, Clinton and Sanders both finished above the 15 percent viability threshold in the overwhelming majority of precincts, and this smoothed out what can often be noisy delegate estimates coming out of the precinct stage of the caucus/convention process.

Iowa, then, is easy and provided a virtually even distribution of delegates among the top contenders. The delegate rules in the contests ahead — particularly on the Republican side (though the Democrats still have superdelegates) — are more complex.

It is these contests that should create some distance between the candidates in delegate count.

Josh Putnam is a lecturer in political science at the University of Georgia. He runs the site Frontloading HQ.