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Satellite caucuses could put Bernie Sanders over the top in Iowa

The Sanders campaign’s satellite caucus strategy could give him a boost in a close race.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with his wife Jane Sanders takes the stage to address supporters during his caucus night watch party on February 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There’s now a chance Sen. Bernie Sanders could take the lead in Iowa, and something called satellite caucuses appear to be giving him an edge.

First tested in 2016, the satellite caucuses were officially rolled out this year; they were a measure to increase flexibility for Iowans who couldn’t be physically present at traditional caucus locations and times. A couple dozen were held for Iowans who live around the US and the rest of the world, but many more were held right in the state. Those voters included the elderly in nursing homes and factory workers who couldn’t caucus right at 7 pm, among others.

And a crucial, unexpected development we’re now seeing is that satellite caucuses have more potential to boost Sanders’s numbers because they have more state delegate equivalent value. (“State delegate equivalents,” as Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained, are the traditional metric the Iowa Democratic Party has reported and tell us “how many delegates each candidate will get at the Iowa state convention.”)

With 97 percent of precincts reporting in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, and a razor-thin margin of 0.1 percent separating the top two candidates in state delegate equivalents, what final results we have seen coming in seem favorable to Sanders. However, the race is still too close to call.

At a press conference in New Hampshire Thursday, Sanders declared victory in Iowa based on raw vote totals that have him ahead. Though he downplayed state delegate equivalents in that press conference, his campaign made a concerted push to get people out to the possibly delegate-rich satellite caucuses.

Unlike the set number of state delegate equivalents at traditional caucus sites, satellite caucus’s state-delegate-equivalent value was determined by turnout. The more turnout there was at satellite caucus sites, the better it is for the winning candidate (more on that below).

Sanders appears to be the big benefactor of that. His campaign organized about a quarter of the 99 satellite caucuses around the state, and sent volunteers to other ones. Their goal was to turn out marginalized groups that traditionally don’t caucus, thereby proving the Vermont senator’s theory of winning elections.

“What we knew all along was these satellite caucuses could be ways to bring people who are typically left out of the caucus process and the political process in,” Sanders’s deputy state director for Iowa, Bill Neidhardt, told Vox in an interview Thursday.

Another layer of confusion was added to the Iowa process. In a Thursday statement, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez asked the Iowa Democratic party for a “recanvass” — essentially a recount — of results. A recanvass may not change the final result, but it means there could be yet more delays getting the final numbers.

Sanders’s Iowa campaign believed they were organizing satellite caucuses more than any other campaign on the ground, but they didn’t realize the satellites would matter this much to their campaign. Sanders had been winning the raw vote totals in Iowa, both on the first and second round, but the campaign has been trailing Buttigieg in state delegate equivalents. On Thursday, with 97 percent of precincts reporting, Sanders had 547 state delegate equivalents — three short of Buttigieg’s 550.

“If it puts us over the top, that’s poetry — it’s really amazing,” Neidhardt said. “It’s a reflection of what we’re trying to do here. The fact it can win you a caucus is what we were hoping for all along.”

Why satellite caucuses are suddenly so important

The big takeaway here is: Satellite caucuses are worth more with higher turnout this year.

Here’s why.

When it comes to the all-important value of state delegate equivalents in Iowa, there is a really important difference between a traditional caucus site and a satellite caucus site. Traditional caucus sites have a set number of state delegates equivalents assigned to them, based on the number of votes in that precinct in recent elections (this year, that means it’s based on the number of votes for the 2016 Iowa caucus winner, Hillary Clinton, and for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2018).

That means no matter how high turnout is at a certain traditional precinct, the number of state delegate equivalents remains the same.

This does not hold true for satellite caucuses, which were debuting in 2020. Rather than having a set number, the state delegate equivalent value of a satellite was basically on a sliding scale — it could increase if turnout was higher at that caucus site.

Here’s how MSNBC political correspondent Steve Kornacki calculated the value of satellite caucuses.

“I think Sanders needs turnout in IA-2 to hit that 2% level — then it would be worth 11.2 SDE,” Kornacki concluded in another tweet. “If he then performed there as he has in IA-4 and IA-3, he’d overtake Buttigieg in the statewide tally.”

According to FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich, Sanders has so far gotten 21.855 state delegate equivalents out of the satellite caucus sites. In comparison, Buttigieg has gotten just 1.196.

We still are waiting for the last few precincts to come in so we don’t yet know whether Sanders or Buttigieg will emerge as the winner. There is also uncertainty around the accuracy of some of the current results. But the Sanders campaign organizing satellite caucuses appears to have paid unexpected dividends.

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