Romney, Santorum Actually Tied Iowa Caucus, Experts Say

LiveScience.com

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney received eight more votes than candidate Rick Santorum last night in the Iowa caucus, "eking out a victory" on the path to winning the Republican nomination for president — or so officials and the media are saying. But according to academics, Romney and Santorum actually tied.

"From a statistical point of view, you can't say Romney won anymore than you can say Santorum won," said Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University who studies election error.

Seife said there's a small but intractable error rate present in any vote count. The rate can be reduced down to 0.01 percent when electronic ballots are used, but in the Iowa caucus, where voters marked their choices with check marks or by writing the candidates' names in by hand, the error rate in counting the votes, which is also done by hand, would have been much higher — around 0.5 to 1 percent. "That's orders of magnitude above the victory margin," he told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Romney's eight-vote surplus was just 0.007 percent of the total number of caucus votes, so it's possible that his winning votes were tallied in error. Any margin of victory less than 0.5 to 1 percent should be considered a tie, at least from a statistical point of view. "Scientists know that when you can't tell the difference between the two things, they say that, as best they can tell, these are the same size," Seife said.

There are several sources of error that could easily render eight votes meaningless, Seife said. First, ballots sometimes stick to the bottom of ballot boxes when the boxes are overturned, and fail to be counted. On top of that, election officials occasionally misread messy handwriting, or tally their totals incorrectly. They may even misjudge who a voter intended to vote for: "You'd be surprised how often people place a check mark in an ambiguous place," he said. [Voting Rules Q & A]

Political scientist Thomas Holbrook of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee agreed that these sources of error far outstrip Romney's margin of victory. "If you counted all of the votes again, it is very unlikely that you would end up with a final tally of 30,015 to 30,007" — the official votes for Romney and Santorum, Holbrook said. "There are all sorts of opportunities for unintentional human error in counting activities and I'm virtually certain that with over 100,000 ballots counted by hand, the size of the error is greater than the eight ballots that separate the top two finishers."

Richard Lowry, a statistician and professor emeritus at Vassar College, says the two candidates should be regarded as having finished neck-and-neck, with no outright winner. "The 8-vote difference ... could in my opinion have easily been produced by inadvertent counting errors," Lowry wrote in an email.

Whether it's statistically significant or not, any official declaration of victory can have big ramifications. With political pundits regarding Romney's "victory" as evidence that he's in a good position to win the Republican nomination — historically, Iowa caucus winners often go on to win the nomination — the failure to recognize a statistical tie in Iowa could impact the future of the country.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

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