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The Coin-Toss Victory — And Other Hillary Clinton Myths

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The Coin-Toss Victory — And Other Hillary Clinton Myths

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Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton did not win the Iowa caucuses with a coin toss. She didn’t “win” at all. Not really. Delegates in Iowa are allotted proportionally. She won half. Bernie Sanders won half.

Yes, some of those delegates were decided by an obscure rule requiring the toss of a coin, and Clinton’s winning of the coin toss was something of a mathematical improbability. But she did not “win” and Sanders did not “lose” in Iowa, because “winning” and “losing” are meaningless terms in a situation in which the candidates split the delegate count right down the middle.

“Winning” and “losing” are meaningful terms in two ways. One, if Clinton won a runaway majority of delegates. For instance, if she won 70 percent and Sanders won 30. Two, if delegates are allotted according to the winner-takes-all rule. In that case, the candidate winning more than 49.5 percent wins all the delegates.

Only in the latter situation would it matter that Hillary Clinton mathematically improbably won a handful of Iowa delegates with a coin toss. But that is not the situation, and so all the controversy over the Iowa coin toss amounts to a lot of noise.

That doesn’t explain the cause of the noise, however. One cause is naturally our national media, which tends to treat every state contest as if it were winner-takes-all. I’m guessing that tendency comes mostly from the professional need for a kind of shorthand. “Win” and “lose” aren’t the only misused electoral terms. Even The New York Times this week conflated “primaries” and “caucuses.”

Another cause of noise is ignorance. Many Americans unfortunately don’t know how their federalist system works. This is amplified by international news outlets covering the campaigns.

Nominating elections are won and lost state by state. Some have primaries. Some have caucuses. Some primaries are closed, for party members only. Some are open. Democrats can vote for Republicans, and vice versa. Some states choose not to legally bind their delegates to candidates. They can change candidates at the convention. Both parties have what are called “super-delegates,” who can pledge themselves to whomever they wish regardless of winners. Such party officials serve as a bulwark against an “excess of democracy.”

Even as candidates fight from state to state, the real objective in their minds is the total number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. Achieving that number means ginning up enthusiasm, especially among base voters in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, because the more energy generated, the more likely they are to win the Big One.

But part of me suspects the social-media hysteria over Clinton’s “coin toss victory” stems from the deep distrust of Hillary Clinton and her husband among left-liberals on the margins of the Democratic Party. They already believe the Clintons are crooks. A coin toss deciding who gets some Iowa delegates only confirms that perception. A barrage of media reports saying that Clinton beat Sanders by a hair only arouses a sense of rage that’s always already there.

I have been unconvinced that Clinton’s fiercest critics are motivated by sexism, but it’s hard to keep dismissing the claim. And I’m not just talking about what clothes she wears, her awkwardness on camera, or her clearly staged spontaneity.

Clinton, like the rest of the Democratic Party, has progressed enormously over the course of eight years under the leadership of Barack Obama. But Clinton’s detractors believe she’s stuck in the 1990s, a decade whose politics are unrecognizable in today’s Democratic Party. The Democrats are more progressive, more diverse, and more unified on issues than they have been in decades.

Yes, politicians can and do pander. They say things today. They’ll say the opposite tomorrow. But in Clinton’s case, that’s not flip-flopping. It’s the inevitable result of having a long public career. As Harry Enten noted last year at FiveThirtyEight, Clinton was liberal by the standards of the 1990s and she remains liberal. I’d go farther to suggest that thanks to the president and now Bernie Sanders, we have a Hillary Clinton who is more liberal than ever.

That probably will not appease her critics. Once a minion of Wall Street, always a minion of Wall Street, even as the Dodd-Frank financial reform law she supported is shrinking too-big-to-fail banks. The law’s capital-reserve requirements are preventing those big banks from being as profitable as they were. They are breaking themselves up. As president, Clinton could sit on her hands while the reform law continued to make for a more stable economy.

But there’s something about Clinton that her critics evidently know to be true, something that defies fact and history, something that’s universal and timeless and immune to concrete circumstance — and it’s that implacable belief that I find most troubling.

Photo: Bernie Sanders (left) greets Hillary Clinton after the Democratic presidential debate at Drake University. Mandatory Credit: Rodney White/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY Sports

John Stoehr is the Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan University and a lecturer in political science at Yale.

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52 Comments

  1. Dominick Vila February 4, 2016

    In my modest opinion, all the hoopla about major differences between Hillary and Bernie, questions about a coin toss that is part of Iowa’s archaic caucus rules, and desperate efforts to establish a barrier between progressiveness and moderation, are efforts to attract media attention to a political contest between two people who share similar records, experiences, and vision. Yes, Hillary voted for the invasion of Iraq, and Bernie denounced it, but other than that, and a couple of other decisions, there is more in common between the two Democratic candidates that what separates them. The best thing that could happen to the Democratic party is if at the end of the primary process these two candidates join forces and run for the presidency as a team.

    Reply
    1. itsfun February 5, 2016

      and make the communist manifesto the new constitution. Karl Marx would vote for them.

      Reply
      1. David February 5, 2016

        Along with Josef Stalin!

        Reply
      2. pjm19606 February 5, 2016

        Really? Karl Marx opposed a unity of “the people”. He felt that the proletariat must be lead at all times, completely unable to make its own decisions.

        Reply
      3. latebloomingrandma February 5, 2016

        Oh, come on. Bernie is the only candidate who is really fighting for our democracy.

        Reply
        1. itsfun February 5, 2016

          Bernie is a self called Socialist. How can you say a Socialist is fighting for Democracy.

          Reply
          1. latebloomingrandma February 5, 2016

            Socialism is not a form of government; it’s an economic system. It is not incompatible with representative democracies. Most democracies have mixed economies.

            Reply
          2. Dominick Vila February 7, 2016

            I think it is also important to differentiate between Soviet communism, and the socialist policies adopted by several West European countries, which are closer to what Bernie Sanders is proposing. He is not talking about appropriation of properties, turning the private sector into government run institutions, or any of the other extreme measures adopted by the Soviets.
            There is a huge difference between Soviet communism, and proposals to prevent Wall Street excesses, policies to narrow the economic gap between the top 1% of our population and the remaining 99%, proposals to provide tuition free education to be able to compete with other industrialized nations, and proposals to expand the ACA to make healthcare coverage available to all Americans, not only to ensure that everyone has access to an essential service, but to lower the cost of medical care in the USA and, by default, make our corporations more competitive by reducing their operating costs.
            People should take a close look at the standard of living in Scandinavian and other European countries before they engage in ridiculous hyperbole or unfounded claims.
            There are no freebies. We have to pay for what we get and need, whether it is a strong military, intelligence agencies, or social programs. Interestingly, the only candidate running who has acknowledged that fact is Bernie Sanders. Lost in the unfounded fear of huge taxes is the fact that his proposals would result in no health insurance premiums, not being burdened with a huge college expenses debt, or our corporations not having to pay for healthcare insurance for their employees.
            I don’t fault those who believe that individuals should be responsible for their own lives and pay for what they need, my biggest problem with that is that every time somebody runs into problems because they did not bother to save to pay for what they need, they blame the government for not making it available to them, or find ways to scheme the government, use social programs, and pretend they are conservatives.

            Reply
          3. Zengo February 7, 2016

            Yeah Dom, but these trolls hear the word ‘Socialism’ and they already know what it means, regardless of the facts and truth that you lay out before them

            Reply
          4. Phil Johnson February 7, 2016

            This is the best lay-person expose’ I have seen lately. I am still waiting for the next Repub moderator to ask the Q, “what is the difference between a (d)emocrat and a (s)ocialist?”.

            Ask Debbie W. Schutltz. Perhaps she knows now. Chris Matthews asked her that a couple of months ago and I am still waiting. for her answer.

            In any event, I see no dawning of intelligence on the Republican side of the question. In their dog-and-pony show last night; so-called policy issues pretty much boiled down to who could wave the nationalistic flag the highest and fastest.

            aures lupi

            Reply
          5. latebloomingrandma February 7, 2016

            Great explanation, as usual, Dominick. Thanks.

            Reply
          6. fredoandme February 7, 2016

            easy. a socialist is fighting for democracy. somebody has to do it.

            Reply
    2. FT66 February 5, 2016

      Right Dominick. Who voted for Iraq war and who didn’t, doesn’t make any sense. Even if it was the only two (Sanders and Hillary) didn’t vote to allow “W” to invade Iraq, The two votes couldn’t have stopped “W” to invade anyhow.

      Reply
    3. pjm19606 February 5, 2016

      Too bad Hillary is beholden to Wall Street, especially since she has now taken SO much of its money in her election efforts. As POTUS, Hillary will be Wall Street’s Bitch!

      Reply
    4. plc97477 February 7, 2016

      I wonder if the “differences” between them could be that the gotp feel one is more beatable than the other. I wonder cus it seems to me that the biggest detractors seem to be on the right.

      Reply
      1. fredoandme February 7, 2016

        beatable? we get to beat them? well, count me…..what?…..oh……never mind.

        Reply
      2. Dominick Vila February 7, 2016

        I am sure GOP strategists have been trying to determine which of the two Democratic candidates is the most vulnerable. The attacks against her are bearing fruit. It doesn’t matter that having only one foreign terrorist attack against a U.S. consulate pales in comparison to what happened during W’s tenure; and it doesn’t matter that most civil servants use private e-mail accounts to send and receive official correspondence. They have been convinced that some evil happened, and that’s all that matters to them. As for Sanders, I am not sure how effective the attacks of socialism would be. I think most Americans understand the difference between Soviet socialism/communism and the type of West European socialism that Bernie is talking about. The real problem is that with the GOP in full control of the House for many years to come, and the distinct probability of them keeping control of the Senate, Bernie’s proposals are not going to be implemented. They will be dead on arrival, unless a massive popular movement demands action from their congressional representatives, which would be nice, but unlikely.

        Reply
        1. Phil Johnson February 7, 2016

          … and that is why I think Eliz Warren is running in 2020. Bernie will finish the foundation, win or lose, and now FDR II will take place after EW takes the lead.

          Reply
        2. A_Real_Einstein February 7, 2016

          Don’t underestimate Bernie and his bold message of unfairness and a political system that is rigged in favor of the wealthy and well connected. That resignates with many independents and blue collar whites that are voting Republican. Neither Hillary or Bernie will move a progressive agenda legislatively without a supermajority in the Senate and a majority in the House. The idea the GOP would work with either one to any degree is comical. So we really need to ask which candidate has the ability to create the movement necessary to have Congress look more like 2009. America is ready for Bernie. America is ready for the progressive revolution. Remember we were not rejected in 2014 for being to liberal. Our candidates ran from progressive accomplishments of this President and gave voters no reason to vote for them.

          Reply
          1. Bren Frowick February 7, 2016

            How “progressive” was it of Bernie to vote against the Brady Bill five times?

            Reply
          2. A_Real_Einstein February 7, 2016

            Not very. But on every other issue he is the more progressive and credible candidate. 1 point for Hillary, a gazillion points for Bernie. I think you will also agree that the Bernie of today in wake of these mass murders and ridiculous NRA response is more than palatable to the progressive movement. Bernie is fully behind Obama’s gun control positions and supported the Toomey/Mansion bill which would have expanded background checks and a host of other common sense gun control measures.

            Reply
  2. 1standlastword February 4, 2016

    For Iowans coins are people my friend!

    Reply
  3. JohnathanA February 4, 2016

    Another dirty trick by Hillary.

    Reply
    1. latebloomingrandma February 5, 2016

      Hillary had nothing to do with their old fashioned system.

      Reply
      1. JohnathanA February 5, 2016

        Whose “old fashioned system” exactly?
        How does Hillary fit or not fit in this “old fashioned system, in your mind?”

        Reply
        1. latebloomingrandma February 6, 2016

          I was referring to the rather quaint caucus system used in Iowa. In this high tech age, it seems old fashioned to have to resort to coin tosses to determine how many delegates.
          So how would this get to be one of Hillary’s dirty tricks? I guess this meme will soon replace “Thanks, Obama.”

          Reply
          1. JohnathanA February 6, 2016

            This is the only criticism you feel able to make?

            Reply
          2. Bren Frowick February 7, 2016

            You’ve got nothing. The coin toss is used at the local level to determine who gets a COUNTY delegate when the people at that site are evenly divided. According to some reports, Sanders actually WON most of those flips, but it doesn’t matter because the handful of caucuses where it was used have statistically zero effect on the choice of STATE delegates.

            Reply
          3. JohnathanA February 7, 2016

            I never mentioned the coin toss but since you did, can you verify that the coin was tossed 6 times in a row and each and every time, Hillary won?

            Reply
          4. Anne February 7, 2016

            Of course, in real countries elections are never decided with the toss of a coin period. Once again the US gave the world something to chuckle about. I hope you’re proud of that.

            Reply
    2. Bob Eddy February 7, 2016

      Another inane Hillary bash! Read the story, genius. Hillary had nothing to do with determining when to employ a coin toss and Hillary didn’t gain any advantage in the coin tosses.

      Reply
    3. johncp February 7, 2016

      The more you make of this “insignificant” event, about which “you couldn’t care less,” the clearer you become a sore loser. You don’t change reality by incessantly griping about it.

      Reply
      1. JohnathanA February 7, 2016

        I made one comment and you go on as if you know what you are talking about and I cannot tell you how ignorant you read.

        Reply
  4. I of John February 5, 2016

    This system is looking a bit fragile and dated.

    Reply
    1. pjm19606 February 5, 2016

      Ya think? How about we all vote on EVERYTHING via our smartphones and render Congress 535 “actuaries”. Don’t tell me it’s impossible.

      Reply
  5. itsfun February 5, 2016

    How can anyone take the results seriously when a coin flip determines the winner. That is the way kids determine which team will bat first in sandlot baseball.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bass February 5, 2016

      The coin flip was for state delegates. Only national delegates get to be delegates to the nominating convention.
      Look up the actual circumstances in which a coin toss is used in Iowa, before you ASSUME it is like you kids on the sandlot, you are COMPLETELY wrong in your interpretation. But the media has presented it that way, so we are lead down the primrose path by the mendacious media.

      Reply
  6. FT66 February 5, 2016

    Who won and who lost in Iowa is all about media frenzy. They are always twisting us in any direction they want us to go. As Sanders said last night during the debate, the whole game is all about delegates. If delegates are awarded proportionally, what is the use of declaring a winner or loser?

    Reply
    1. nana4gj February 7, 2016

      Hillary felt she had “won” because she had a great showing, much, much better than the last time when she clearly did not win. For her, she felt she was a winner. She said that herself the next morning in an interview with CNN.

      Reply
      1. Phil Johnson February 7, 2016

        “Win” is in the mind of the MSM beholder. What matters now is “GOTV”.

        Reply
      2. tallen387 February 7, 2016

        She had an absolutely horrible showing, and she felt she had one chance to spin to into something different. She appears to have failed.

        This was supposed to be a coronation, not an actual election. I am baffled at her demonstrated talent for screwing this sort of thing up.

        Reply
        1. nana4gj February 7, 2016

          I would not call her having a “horrible showing” any more than I would call Bernie Sanders’ showing, “horrible”. It was pretty much half and half. If she failed, so, apparently, did he.

          Reply
    2. johncp February 7, 2016

      But it’s characteristic of candidates that lose races, to make this argument. If you had won by .3% of the vote, you wouldn’t be making this argument.

      Reply
  7. nana4gj February 7, 2016

    But, if one of them in a virtual split of delegates won is named “Hillary”, there must be some shady, underhanded, shenanigans, right? And the other campaign, even the high principled, self righteous such as Bernie Sanders, will allow his campaign to make hay out of anything possible, even when they make their own shady, underhanded, shenanigans, so they can make as much of those infamous $27.00 contributions, and smear their opponent, even if “artfully” done. Pure sleaze, the whining, unfairness, of the self-proclaimed “underdog” going up against the “biggest, most powerful campaign machine of the Clintons.” If the Clintons have a powerful campaign machine, it’s because they have been in the arena all of their lives, not sitting in obscurity doing nothing but exploiting the various labels they hang on themselves for political expediency. They do, indeed, have all of the battle scars and the notoriety of manufactured slander to prove it. It’s bizarre that the most scrutinized people in the political world are slandered by those with little to no scrutiny, but with questionable behaviors and integrity, from both political parties.

    As it stands today, half of Iowa delegates are “pledged” to each candidate. At the end of all of the primaries, and the primary election, the earned delegates have the choice to hold to their pledged delegates, or to transfer them to the primary election winner, and nothing is guaranteed until the ceremonial announcement of their pledge at the nominating convention. Then, there is the matter of the Super Delegates.

    Reply
  8. Anne February 7, 2016

    Actually, the coin toss is a national embarrassment. Once again the US is the world’s laughing stock because apparently we decide “democratic” elections with a coin toss because we’re really too lazy to count votes. Reminds everybody of the 2000 election, doesn’t it?

    Reply
    1. Bob Eddy February 7, 2016

      It isn’t because they didn’t count the votes, it hasn’t decided an election and is an eccentricity of the Iowa caucuses, not a national election. Other than that, you may have a point.

      Reply
      1. Anne February 7, 2016

        You don’t get around much, do you Eddy? Is Iowa located in the US? Do you expect the rest of the world to care if weird stuff happens in Iowa or in Vermont? It’s in the US. And no, coin tosses have no place in an election period, at least not in a country that constantly preaches to the world about being this fancy democracy. If it’s part of the Iowa caucus, it’s high time Iowa drops that eccentricity because Trump will take care of the American eccentricity department for the next century.

        Reply
  9. Bob Eddy February 7, 2016

    Has there been any coverage of this non-event outside the rightwing noise machine? That’s the only place I have seen it have any prominence other than stories like this that refute (or is that “refutiate?”) It’s validity. It appears the Democrats have moved on without looking back at what was a very close result — The Republicans, of course, are still disputing their results.

    Reply
    1. Anne February 7, 2016

      Yes, the whole world got a laugh over that and the foreign press is hardly part of America’s rightwing noise machine. It’s an embarrassment. Of course the democrats moved on and so did the republicans because the US always just moves on and forgets that once again it embarrassed itself. As far as the US is concerned, it also destroyed the Middle East and just moved on while Europe is expected to pick up the pieces and give millions of people a new home.

      Reply
      1. Bob Eddy February 7, 2016

        I understand your point, but I have not uncovered any evidence it had much coverage in the foreign press. With the likes of Trump, Cruze and Carson a part of the process, how can a coin toss to decide a tie be any more embarrassing….and, no, the Republicans have not moved on with Trump threatening law suits over his perceived slights.

        Reply
        1. Anne February 7, 2016

          Uncovered any evidence? That they smirked while they showed the videos of the coin flips on the British, French, German, Russian, Chinese etc. etc. news is no evidence? Do you ever watch the foreign news? You should. it’s available on Satellite TV. That along with those nutcases Cruz and Trump basically provides the humor on the foreign news at this time.

          Reply
  10. johncp February 7, 2016

    There’s something about you, Stoehr, that defies fact and history, and that is, that you’re a sore-loser.

    Reply

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