January 19, 2012

Yepsen: Errors damage Iowa caucuses’ credibility

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The role and impact of the Iowa caucuses in helping guide the fortunes of future presidential candidates could face a severe test after former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum emerged as the leading vote-getter.

Fifteen days after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the announced winner by eight votes in the Jan. 3 first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses, the Republican Party of Iowa on Thursday changed course.

Results released today (Jan. 19) have Santorum finishing ahead of Romney by 34 votes, but questions still linger after vote totals from eight of the state’s 1,774 precincts are missing and cannot be certified.  The certified votes from the remaining precincts show Santorum with 29,839 votes and 29,805 for Romney, prompting one Iowa Republican Party official to label the caucus a “split decision.”

Media Advisory

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, is available for interviews.  To arrange an interview contact the Institute at 618/453-4009.

David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said the impact of changing winners two weeks later “could be significant.”

“It could be the beginning of the end for the Iowa caucuses as an important political event because it undermines the credibility of those events.  The ‘win, place, and show’ ranking is all-important in this game, and to get that wrong is to really alter the political dynamics that comes out of this,” Yepsen said.

A nationally recognized political analyst and the chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register prior to his appointment as Institute director in April 2009, Yepsen covered every Iowa presidential caucus since 1976.

Ordinarily the change of a few vote totals during certification will not change a candidate’s overall finish.  But in a tight race with more than 1,700 precincts in the state’s 99 counties, there can be errors in simple mathematical calculations or transposed numbers as party volunteers add vote totals and report them to the Republican Party of Iowa.

Yepsen emphasizes there has been no assertion of fraud, “just a grade school mathematical error and it’s going to hurt the caucuses.”

Romney came out of Iowa to win the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, ostensibly to become the first Republican candidate to start a nomination bid with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.  There is no telling the momentum the correct finish in Iowa might have given Santorum and his drive as the “conservative alternative” to Romney going into New Hampshire, Yepsen said.

“It won’t be the plus that it should have been; it won’t be the prize he should have won if he came in first,” Yepsen said.  “If you win the gold medal they don’t give you a silver and say it was close.”

Santorum was fifth in New Hampshire, and polls have him in fourth place ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina.  With Romney consistently tracking atop the polls, Yepsen said the change in Iowa “might not change the outcome of the game, but it should provide Santorum with a slight boost that ‘hey, you really won’.”

“It’s going to be a positive news story for him,” Yepsen said.

But the snafu could lead to changes within the Iowa caucuses, Yepsen said.  While both parties have tried to improve counting and reporting of vote tallies through the years, controversy remains, he said.

“I felt like Iowa had to consistently be improving the speed in which they reported the results and in accuracy,” he said.

In municipal and county elections a mistake is corrected with the rightful winner assuming the office.  But in the presidential caucus “the prize of winning is the headlines, the cover of news magazines, the buzz, and momentum,” Yepsen said.

“You can’t take back the headlines.  You can’t go back to Jan. 4,” he said.