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Partial results = no results

On Tuesday afternoon, the Iowa Democratic Party released results from 62 percent of the precincts statewide. Given the frustration of having no results on caucus night, many were eager to see these results in order to get a sense of who “won” the Iowa Caucuses.

A word of caution, however. It is better to treat partial results like no results. Consider the following example from the 1980 Republican caucuses in Iowa as discussed in the Iowa PBS documentary, Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency.

According to caucus historians (starts at 26-minute mark of the documentary), while George H.W. Bush was declared the winner by 2,182 votes, the new computer reporting system broke down, resulting in incomplete results coming in from western Iowa. As shown in the documentary, many in the Reagan campaign argued that western Iowa was one of their strong areas, suggesting that if the full results had come in, he would have won. David Yepsen, now host of Iowa Press, sums up this peculiarity with a remarkable statement: “Think how different American history would be had Reagan won the Iowa caucuses in 1980---the whole Bush dynasty never would have started.”

Back to the 2020 caucuses, with 71 percent of precincts now in, the New York Times is forecasting Pete Buttigieg with an 81 percent probability of “winning” the caucuses.

But until 100 percent of the precincts have reported, it is best to interpret the results very cautiously.

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