If you turn to the New York Times for an update on the excruciatingly and inexplicably slow counting of the votes from the Iowa caucuses, you find what looks like a bar chart showing that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg did approximately 50 times better than any of his next closest rivals:
On closer examination, it turns out that that is not a bar chart, but merely the New York Times’ indication that Buttigieg is in the lead, with (at this writing) approximately 75% of the precincts reporting. But leading at what? Not in number of votes received, either in the first or the final round of the caucuses—the candidate leading in both of those categories was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had a 2.8 and 0.6 percentage point lead, respectively, over Buttigieg. No, the chart says “Total SDEs,” and a footnote helpfully explains that these are “state delegate equivalents, which are derived from caucus vote tallies and determine the number of pledged delegates each candidate receives.”
Times polling maven Nate Cohn has a note nearby that states that SDEs are “the metric we use to call a winner.” But—why? SDEs are a meaningless intermediate step between the number of votes cast and the pledged delegates awarded—the latter being what actually matters in terms of winning the Democratic nomination for president, which is what this is all about. Why not use those as the metric you use to call a winner—the way, you know, the Democratic Party does?
Well, if you look at the pledged delegate count—featured in a box further down the page—you see the problem: As of 5 pm EST on Wednesday, Buttigieg and Sanders are tied with 11 delegates apiece. And declaring that the great centrist hope has won something is something that corporate media are clearly eager to do—even in an exceedingly close race in which, rather famously, not all the votes have been counted yet.
Thus Slate (2/5/20) had the headline: “How Pete Won.” In the article, William Saletan wrote: “Buttigieg, by assembling a broad coalition of progressives, moderates, suburbs and small towns, was winning the “delegate equivalent” count—Iowa’s version of the Electoral College.” That’s wrong, of course; the equivalent of the Electoral College, in the sense of the number that determines the real-world outcome, is the delegate count, which at that point Buttigieg had not won and was not winning. (Note that the link in Saletan’s takes you to the New York Times for its ex cathedra assurance that this mathematical placeholder is actually the measure of victory in the Iowa contest.)
On CNN, correspondent Jim Sciutto (2/5/20) stated that Sanders “did lose to a small-town mayor.” Prodded to defend this claim on Twitter (2/5/20), Sciutto asserted: “Based on results so far, he did lose.” The CNN reporter seems to need a refresher as to what the point of an election is—as well as about what the past tense means.