Here's How Multiple Democrats Can Claim Victory in the Iowa Caucuses and What It Means For 2020 Race

As 2020 Democratic hopefuls go full-steam ahead in Iowa just 45 days from the state's first-in-the-nation caucus, a new rule change could open the possibility of more than one candidate being successful.

"You will have, potentially, three campaigns that might claim they actually won. How that will affect the primary is really difficult to tell," political strategist Norm Sterzenbach told Newsweek. Sterzenbach is the former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party.

The Midwestern state has held the first presidential nominating contests in the country every year since 1972. For decades the process stayed nearly the same, but this year the Iowa Democratic Party and the Democratic National Convention made several changes that could muddle the picture.

For the first time, state officials will be disclosing the raw vote totals, as well as the final number of state delegate equivalents awarded to each candidate.

Technically, there will still only be one winner: the candidate who receives the most state delegate equivalents. That is the most important metric because it is later used to determine national delegates, which select the candidate that will be the party's nominee for president.

But delegates are awarded in the Iowa Democratic caucus on a precinct-by-precinct basis, much like a mini electoral college, regardless of the statewide vote for each candidate. So a contender could potentially win the popular vote but earn fewer delegates — an argument that some candidates like Bernie Sanders have tried to make in the past. The data, however, was never released.

"It's possible. I don't think it's likely but it is possible to have someone lead in the raw vote and not lead in the delegate equivalents," Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic strategist, told Newsweek.

Sterzenbach noted that making the raw vote totals available to the public could impact the 2020 primary in the sense that more than one candidate could have momentum coming out of the state.

"A campaign could say 'We may not have had the most number of delegates because of the stupid system Iowa uses but we had the most number of people so we obviously won,'" he explained. "If people buy that argument, it might raise a lot of money for the candidate and allow them to compete in other places."

When the new rules were announced earlier this year, Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price called them the "most significant changes" to the primary event since its creation. Price added that they would help make the 2020 caucuses the "most accessible" and the "most transparent" ever.

Sterzenbach agreed, stating that releasing all three numbers will give voters "a more open and accurate picture of what happened."

Link disagreed, stating that there was no real benefit for the Iowa Democratic Party to release the raw vote numbers.

"I don't think it's useful, I think it's confusing. I don't know why on earth we're doing this," Link said. "It's a confusing mess and the bottom line is that announcing more numbers makes it more confusing not less confusing."

When asked about the rule changes opening up the possibility that more than one candidate can claim victory, Price told Newsweek that "what the campaigns choose to say is up to the campaigns. Our job is to report the results and that is what we will do."

He added that all of the changes made to the system this year are "designed to make sure that these caucuses are the most successful ever and I believe they will be."

joe biden iowa campaign stop
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to guests during a campaign stop at the RiverCenter on October 16, 2019 in Davenport, Iowa. New rule changes in the Iowa caucus could result in multiple candidates claiming victory. Scott Olson/Getty

The Iowa caucuses have been under increasing scrutiny in presidential elections. Many have slammed the state's delegate system as archaic, and the state's lack of diversity—the population is 90 percent white—has prompted questions about why it's allowed to play a crucial role in presidential elections.

In 2016, Sanders called on state officials to release the raw vote totals after a nail-biting second-place finish in the Iowa caucus against Hillary Clinton. Clinton edged out Sanders by less than half a percentage (0.3 percent) point to win 23 delegates to his 21.

"I honestly don't know what happened. I know there are some precincts that have still not reported. I can only hope and expect that the count will be honest," Sanders told reporters after his defeat. "I have no idea. Did we win the popular vote? I don't know, but as much information as possible should be made available."

All but one candidate to receive a presidential nomination from a major political party since 1980 started off their campaigns by winning either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Most recently, Barack Obama and George W. Bush kicked off their primary campaigns with a victory in Iowa. President Donald Trump lost the early-voting state to Republican Senator Ted Cruz, but went on to capture the GOP's nomination.

The 2020 Iowa caucuses is less than two months away and is up for grabs among four Democratic candidates who have been consistently topping the polls in the battleground state: former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders.

The Democratic National Committee has not yet provided comment for the report.