Here’s comes a lot of math: take the total number of caucus-goers, and split it up using the percentage of delegate equivalents earned by each candidate. So in Iowa, 37.6 percent of the delegate equivalents went to Obama, about 29.8 percent went to Edwards, and 29.5 percent went to Clinton. The Iowa state party claims approximately 239,000 caucus-goers. Mash those numbers up, and Obama gets 89,836 votes, Edwards gets 71,103 votes, and Clinton gets 70,433 votes. That’s how CNN, Real Clear Politics, and the Times handled Iowa and Nevada, which use nearly identical caucus systems.
But not Chuck Todd at NBC. In Iowa and Nevada, he hoped to avoid the imprecision of the delegate equivalents—especially the 15 percent rule and supporters who switched their choice after their preferred candidate fell under that bar at their site—by instead using percentages from the National Election Pool’s entrance polls, data gleaned from questioning a hopefully-representative sample of people on their way into the caucuses.
Everyone I spoke with, besides Todd, dismissed NBC’s entrance-poll method. “We didn’t do that because exit polls have been terrible this election, so I don’t know why the entrance polls would be any better,” said Real Clear Politics’s McIntyre.
“You’ve got an estimate based on an estimate,” said CNN’s number cruncher.
But as it turns out, in Iowa and Nevada, the methods make surprisingly little difference. By my math, Todd’s approach yields these Iowa numbers: Obama 83,651, Clinton 64,506, and Edwards 59,988.
Amazingly, that means the Clinton-Obama spread in Iowa—which is, of course, what people now want to know—is, by happy accident, nearly identical by either method: about 19,403 by delegate equivalent and about 19,145 by entrance poll.
Nevada is a little different, but not much. Again, by my math, Todd’s entrance-poll method would yield a Nevada spread of 8,082 in Clinton’s favor, the delegate-equivalent method gives Clinton a 6,040-vote advantage.
That closeness means that both methods are, if you’re optimistic, equally good, or if you’re pessimistic, equally bad. Both raise obvious red flags. But absent the real votes, we’ll never know how close the estimates track to what actually happened.
And unfortunately, Washington and Maine don’t give us any more data to test that question. Todd’s entrance-poll method is useless in those states, because there were no entrance polls.
Washington’s Democratic party claims that 244,458 people caucused, resulting in 21,629 delegate equivalents for Obama and 9,992 for Clinton. In this case, Todd simply added the delegate equivalents to the each candidate’s overall popular vote tally, as if they were raw votes. This means that—poof!—more than 200,000 Washingtonians go missing in NBC’s count.
The Times and RCP stick with the delegate-equivalent method, which, by my math, produces these popular-vote estimates: Obama 165,058 to Clinton’s 76,246—a spread of nearly 89,000 votes.
CNN introduces another Washington wrinkle. Ten days after the Washington caucuses the state held a primary—of sorts. Washington Democrats did not use the primary to allot delegates, but the Democratic candidates were nonetheless listed on the ballot. CNN uses this pseudo primary contest, rather than an estimate based on delegate equivalents, in its popular vote tally. That beauty contest had almost three times the caucus turnout, but was considerably closer: 691,381 votes were cast, but Obama only amassed a 38,386 spread. That tally nets 27,000 more votes to Obama than Todd’s, but 50,000 less than the Times’s and RCP’s counts.
Finally, to Maine. The state Democratic party claimed about 44,000 caucus participants, which produced statewide delegate equivalents of 2,079 for Obama and 1,397 for Clinton. Todd, again, just adds them in as one-to-one proxies, giving Obama a spread of just under 700 votes. RCP was joined by CNN in using the old delegate-equivalent percentage method, producing, by my math, an estimated 26,387 popular votes for Obama and 17,574 for Clinton, for a spread of about 8,800.
What about the Times? Well, Maine, while still not reporting true popular votes, still gives more information that the other three states we’ve examined. Delegate equivalents and turnout numbers are available from each caucus site. The paper combined this data at the county level, did a delegate-equivalent percentage calculation for each of the state’s sixteen counties, and added them up to get these numbers: Obama 27,459 and Clinton 16,606—a spread of about 11,000. “It gets you closer,” says Amanda Cox, a graphics editor at the Times.
The difference between the Times’s county-calculated number and the other outlets’ statewide-calculation is around 2,200—again, not so big in the scheme of any attempt to estimate the total national popular vote. But as a percentage of total Maine participants, it is a big difference—about 5 percent. That big of a difference makes you wonder, again, how accurate the delegate-equivalent method was in Washington and or Iowa, where a combined 5 percent variation could account for 25,000 votes.