Just how close were Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucus?
You could measure it in terms of the results: With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton had an estimated 689 state convention delegates to Sanders's 686 — giving them an even 21 national convention delegates apiece.
Or you could look at it this way: On a precinct-by-precinct basis, Democratic voters were so evenly split between Sanders and Clinton that at least four different caucuses were decided by coin toss.
I've come across three instances in which a Democratic caucus delegate was awarded with a coin toss. Hillary Clinton won all three.— Jason Noble (@jasonnobleDMR) February 2, 2016
This doesn't mean that Hillary Clinton won the Iowa caucuses by a coin toss
Not every coin flip went to Clinton. A fourth caucus, documented in this YouTube video, showed a coin flip won by Sanders:
But because the caucus was so close, and because feelings in the Democratic primary are running so high, some people have interpreted reports to mean that Hillary Clinton's very slight lead over Bernie Sanders in the caucuses is the result of a coin toss. That's not quite accurate, because of the complicated way Democratic primaries work.
The delegate totals that are reported publicly — 689 and 686 — are estimates of the delegates each candidate would have at a statewide convention. But individual caucuses don't pick state delegates — at least not directly. Each caucus picks a set of delegates to a county convention, which then selects delegates for a district convention ... which then selects delegates for the statewide convention.
That makes four levels to the caucus process — and there are a lot more delegates at the county level (the level for which caucuses assigned delegates Monday) than at the state level. So while a coin toss at a precinct caucus definitely gives the winner an advantage, it's not as straightforward as "winning a coin toss gets you an extra delegate in the statewide count."
The fact that so many caucuses came down to coin tosses isn't necessarily an indication that the entire race could have gone one way or the other if not for a bit of luck — although that's certainly possible. What it definitely is, however, is an indication of just how evenly divided Democratic caucus-goers throughout Iowa were. In precinct after precinct, Iowa Democrats got together and found out that equal numbers of them supported Sanders and Clinton.
Who eventually broke the tie is relevant. But so is the fact that so many of them had ties to break at all.