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Democrats Are Playing a Perilous Game With Data

As primary competitors toss around “internal numbers” to claim victory in the early contests, they’re setting a Trumpian precedent.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The whole point of an election is to know who got the most votes. This matter wasn’t quickly resolved in this month’s Iowa caucuses. A cascade of failures and errors by the Iowa Democratic Party delayed the release of official results, upending the nomination fight and sapping confidence in the process itself. To make matters worse, President Donald Trump and his allies quickly seized the opportunity to discredit their opposition and stoke further divisions among his challengers.

In that initial void, multiple Democratic campaigns released what they saw as the next best thing to the real results: sets of internal results that had been harvested by volunteers on the ground. Bernie Sanders’s campaign, citing numbers collected from roughly 40 percent of Iowa’s precincts, said the Vermont senator had come in first place with 29.7 percent of the vote. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign had previously said he had taken first place, telling CNBC that numbers from three-fourths of the state’s precincts showed they had outperformed their own expectations.

These numbers were neither comprehensive nor certified. But it didn’t matter. The “results” allowed multiple candidates to claim victory and momentum as they headed for New Hampshire. It’s not unusual for campaigns to collect internal numbers or cite them publicly. But without quite realizing what they were doing, and without thinking through the long-term consequences of what they’d done, they allowed that chaotic night in Iowa to set a potentially dangerous precedent for the use of “internal numbers” as a proxy for the real thing.

Iowa was an aberration, and so it might have been simple enough to dismiss how the campaigns used homegrown data to claim victory as an outlier. But a social media kerfuffle last weekend between staffers from two campaigns over the Nevada caucus showed how normalized this strategy had suddenly become. “Based on our internal data, Biden will come in a strong second tonight in Nevada,” Greg Schultz, Joe Biden’s campaign manager, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. He also cited entrance polls from caucus sites that showed Biden winning black voters, voters over 65 years old, and those who oppose Medicare for All. “Make no mistake: The Biden comeback starts tonight in Nevada,” he said.

Michael Halle, a Buttigieg campaign aide, retweeted Schultz’s post to dispute it. “Not from what we’re seeing and here are our ACTUAL internal results to follow along,” he wrote, adding a link to a comprehensive spreadsheet of results on Buttigieg’s campaign. It’s unclear what those results showed at that moment on Saturday, but the page currently shows purported results from 35 percent of Nevada precincts. In those numbers, Sanders holds first place with 41 percent of delegates, Buttigieg is second with 20 percent, and Biden is third with 18 percent.

By Sunday, however, Nevada’s official count showed Biden in second place behind Sanders and ahead of Buttigieg. Schultz took a victory lap. “ACTUAL results are in,” he wrote on Sunday. “Biden 2nd place. You want to announce your 1st or 2nd place finish for the next primary now? (checks calendar…) Never mind, South Carolina is a diverse state so imagine you will pass.” The final results released on Monday showed a commanding lead for Sanders, with 46.8 percent of the delegates. Biden took second with 20.2 percent. Buttigieg ultimately came in third with 14.3 percent. As of Tuesday morning, however, his campaign website still shows him ahead of Biden.

In some way, this might have been unavoidable. Modern political campaigns run on data like nineteenth-century locomotives ran on coal. Candidates and their organizations often conduct surveys for internal use only or compile databases of individual voters’ habits and histories. Leaking select internal polls to reporters or even publicly touting them in some form is a familiar tactic to generate buzz and shape the media narrative. And there’s nothing unusual about keeping an internal set of results while votes are being cast. There is, however, little precedent for using those numbers to claim victory in an election where the results are disputed or delayed.

Ideally, state and national elections would run so smoothly that this would be a moot point. But voting-age Americans have lived through multiple instances where the system fell short, most notably during the 2000 presidential election. Using internal numbers as a substitute for official results is risky for campaigns themselves, as shown by Buttigieg’s experiences in Iowa and Nevada. But presidential campaigns may ultimately decide that the benefits of reaping favorable media coverage while flush with victory will overshadow any backlash that might occur when official results show otherwise.

This strategy may enable the odd campaign to achieve its short-term goals, but it carries risks for the democratic process as a whole. By elevating internal numbers without being honest about their shortcomings and flaws, candidates risk sowing doubts about the legitimacy of official election results when these two sets of numbers can’t be reconciled. Sometimes skepticism is warranted, as the Iowa debacle showed us all too well. Thankfully, however, that state’s experience was the exception and not the rule. Using it to justify maneuvers that could amplify distrust in the nation’s electoral systems is a dangerous game.

This Saturday, voters will go to the polls in South Carolina for that state’s primary. The results are likely to be more straightforward and more readily rendered because the process is much simpler than the confusing machinations of the Iowa and Nevada caucuses. Nevertheless, GOP officials in the state have campaigned for Republican voters, who are not barred from participating, to go to the polls and cast votes for Bernie Sanders, in a throwback to previous “Operation Chaos” plots.

As Christopher Sullivan, one of those organizing the effort, put it in an interview with CNN, “I would love to see the Democrats—whoever wins the South Carolina Democrat primary—for everybody else to have accused him of having stolen the election because he was actually elected with Republican support and therefore prolonged the chaos and the disruption.” This is hardly the first time Republicans in South Carolina have attempted to skew the results of the Democratic primary; previous iterations have failed to live up to the hype. But the dissension sparked by sparring campaigns and their internal data in previous states have primed the pump for a chaotic end in the Palmetto State.

An even greater danger lurks on the horizon as well. As I noted last week, Trump spent the run-up to the 2016 presidential election claiming that it would be “rigged” and laying the groundwork to challenge the results. Even after his surprise victory, the president-elect falsely claimed that he only lost the popular vote because millions of people illegally voted for his opponent. The Democratic candidates likely can’t stop Trump from trying to delegitimize their victory if he loses in November. But they can avoid making it easier for him along the way.