I am going to state right here at the outset that this is a painful thing to write. Painful, but necessary. I am going to talk about media coverage of the Iowa caucuses and our ridiculous political system.

You may remember in vague outlines that there were some pretty significant problems in determining who won the Republican contest in the Iowa caucuses in 2012. In reality, there were three separate winners, and also no winner at all.

How could that be?

Well, an initial and preliminary count of the votes indicated that Mitt Romney had won the caucuses by eight votes. And that is how the media reported it. Yes, Rick Santorum had come out of nowhere to finish a shockingly strong second place, but he hadn’t won anything. Romney, who had suffered the indignity of lagging behind in the polls (at one time or another) to everyone in the race except Santorum, had managed to right his ship and avoid a bad stumble out of the gate. This was hugely helpful to him as the contest moved to Romney’s home turf in New Hampshire. Remember, not only had he served as governor in neighboring Massachusetts, but he owned a home in New Hampshire.

Two weeks later, however, and after Romney romped to victory in the Granite State, the Iowa Republican Party had to make two embarrassing announcements. The first was that they had finalized counting the votes and that it turned out that Rick Santorum didn’t have an eight vote deficit but instead a 34-vote lead. The second announcement was that it was impossible to actually declare a winner.

Matt Strawn, chairman of Iowa’s Republican Party, announced Thursday morning that an actual winner could not be determined in the caucuses because results from eight of 1,774 precincts could not be located for certification. But of the votes that could be reviewed by the party, the officials said, Mr. Santorum finished narrowly ahead of Mr. Romney.

“Just as I did in the early morning hours on Jan. 4, I congratulate Senator Santorum and Governor Romney on a hard-fought effort during the closest contest in caucus history,” Mr. Strawn said in a statement. “Our goal throughout the certification process was to most accurately reflect and report how Iowans voted the evening of Jan. 3. We understand the importance to the candidates involved, but as Iowans, we understand the responsibility we have as temporary caretakers of the Iowa caucuses.”

The certified results found that Mr. Santorum received 29,839 votes, and Mr. Romney received 29,805 votes.

So, because they couldn’t locate the results of eight separate caucuses, it was impossible to say who had received more votes on election day, but they certified Santorum as the winner. Romney went through the formality of conceding the state, but no one cared anymore because the way it had been reported initially had allayed concerns about Romney and he was heading into South Carolina as the perceived winner of the first two contents.

But there was an even dirtier secret about the caucuses that no one was yet discussing.

[The decision not to declare a winner], first reported by The Des Moines Register, has no practical effect — the Iowa contest is considered a “beauty contest” that does not officially allocate delegates to the winner, but provides Iowa’s Republican Party a sense of the voters’ thinking.

Yes, indeed, you would have never known it in all the hype leading up to Iowa, but their caucuses have “practically no effect” on who will get the delegates from the Hawkeye state at the Republican National Convention. In 2012, Iowa had 28 delegates at the convention, and according to the New York Times, Ron Paul got 22 of them, Romney got five, and Rick Santorum got zero. One vote is listed as undetermined but probably went for Romney.

Ron Paul achieved this by focusing on the real contest, which actually takes place later in the year at county and state party conventions. This is why it is entirely accurate to call the caucuses a “beauty contest” but horribly misleading to suggest that the voters who turn out to provide “Iowa’s Republican Party a sense of the voters’ thinking” have any efficacy whatsoever over who will represent them at the convention.

The actual effect they have is a bit different.

[Senior Advisor to the Santorum campaign, John] Brabender said the media narrative in the days after the contest focused on Romney’s victory and perceived inevitability, instead of the storyline that Santorum had come out of nowhere to emerge as a viable grassroots challenger to the establishment candidate.

Brabender estimated that it cost the Santorum campaign “a couple million” dollars in donations, and a huge amount of earned media attention at a critical juncture in the race.

He also said it had an impact on the results in other contests, like in Michigan, Romney’s home state, where the eventual GOP nominee only narrowly defeated Santorum.

Brabender argued that Santorum matched Romney on Election Day in the Wolverine State, but that those who voted early in Michigan – propelled Romney to victory. That might have been different, Brabender said, if early-voters had the full view of Santorum’s strength in the days after the Iowa caucuses.

“I hope nobody else has to go through that because it was totally unfair,” Brabender said.

So, the caucuses have a lot of influence over the nomination, but wholly through how they affect voting in other states.

Thus, you can justifiably say that Santorum won Iowa because he had the most votes in the certified count, or that Romney won because he benefited the most from the result, or that Ron Paul won because he actually got almost all the delegates, or that no one won because the party refused to declare a winner.

Which leads me to why I had to just laugh out loud at this article in The Hill about how the Iowa Republican Party has really cleaned up their act and invested a lot of money and signed a contract with Microsoft and perfected a mobile application that will allow them to properly, promptly, and accurately count the votes and declare the winner in 2016.

Republicans in Iowa are working overtime to prevent a repeat of the botched 2012 caucuses when scores of unaccounted ballots caused Mitt Romney to be wrongly declared the winner over Rick Santorum.

State party officials say they’ve moved aggressively to address the problems that plagued the ballot count in January 2012, and believe the new technologies they’ve adopted, as well as having more workers on staff and enhanced training programs, will pave the way for a smooth and accurate reckoning at the Feb. 1. caucuses.

“We’re extremely confident that we’ve addressed all of the issues,” said Iowa Republican Party spokesman Charlie Szold.

It’s impossible to conclude that all of this activity will do anything more than further mislead people about what the Iowa Caucuses actually are and what they really mean about the nomination. What should matter in an individual state is who won the delegates. Four years ago, Ron Paul won the delegates. It was actually a bigger story than I’m portraying here, but the Paulista takeover of the Iowa Republican Party caused a multiyear civil war that wasn’t cleaned up until Gov. Terry Branstad engaged in an all-out purge last year.

As we head into a new election cycle, the prospect of the media getting it right this time around looks quite dim. Consider the following from The Hill article:

The state party will be using a new technological platform for the first time, and there is always an element of chaos in caucuses, which are largely carried out by volunteer activists.

The stakes will be higher than ever, as the huge and fractured field of GOP candidates will seek every conceivable advantage to stand out from the pack.

The number of votes separating second place from sixth place could be slim, and the order of how the candidates finish could be the difference between a campaign that carries on, and one that calls it quits.

“At least last time we still knew coming out of it that there were two front-runners,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “This time, there could be several campaigns dependent on their candidate edging out one or two others. They absolutely have to get this right.”

A few observations about this.

First, the last time they messed it up but at least people knew that there were two front-runners, right? But neither of those front-runners were Ron Paul. It wasn’t possible to know initially who would actually get the delegates, and that’s my point. That’s the story. That’s what all the reporting about these caucuses consistently misses. That’s what’s so misleading.

Which is why, second, it’s bullshit that a tiny difference in how many votes you get (leading a candidate, for example, to come in sixth instead of second place) can determine whether or not they can continue to vie for the nomination.

Which is why, third, it’s deeply troubling that it is seen as critically important that they get the precise vote count of this Beauty Contest correct.

The whole thing is a fraud. Acting like an accurate count matters is a fraud, too.

Except, it does matter.

But it only matters because everyone, including the candidates and the media, agree to go along with the fraud.

In the end, there were 2,286 delegates at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Rick Santorum earned nine of them. Ron Paul earned 190, of which 22 came from his victory in Iowa. Ron Paul did win Iowa, and that earned him 0.9% of the delegates at the convention. Rick Santorum won Iowa and got no delegates out of it at all. With 28 total delegates, Iowa barely accounted for one percent of the delegates in Tampa, or half of what you would expect simply by virtue of being one of fifty states.

The real story is here is that Iowa doesn’t have enough delegates to matter. The caucuses don’t elect the few delegates that they do have. The winner on election night is subject to change if the count is close but, since it’s a beauty contest, all that matters is who has a lead when people go to bed that night.

It’s a battle of perceptions, in other words, and the prize is making a favorable impression that will help you win bigger states with more delegates where the elections actually bind delegates to the candidates.

Remember all of this whenever you read about the Iowa Caucuses. Remember why it’s so important that they get the count right this time.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com