Does Winning The Iowa Caucus Matter?

December 11th, 2015 by

iowa-caucusThe Iowa caucus, and, to a lesser extent, the New Hampshire primary have long held a dominant role in Presidential politics. A win in Iowa can lead to a boost to a candidate’s campaign, or it can be a blip that the candidate is never able to capitalize on.

With this in mind, we take a look at the predictive power of the Iowa caucus in Republican Presidential races since the first GOP caucus in 1976.

What’s a Caucus?

The Iowa Caucus differs from Presidential primaries in several important ways. Unlike primaries, where the cost of the election is borne by the state, Iowa caucuses are paid for by the political parties. The parties also count the votes. Prior to this election, the results of the caucuses were not binding. To avoid the confusion this has caused in the past, the Republican party has made their 2016 caucus a binding vote.

Iowa caucuses are much smaller than election precincts, totaling 1,682 precincts. They involve active discussion among the residents on the qualities of the various party candidates, instead of a secret ballot where no one is allowed to try and influence other voters. Once the caucus reaches a conclusion, the group votes on delegates to the county caucus. These county caucuses in turn vote on delegates to the state caucus, where the state Presidential candidate is chosen.

iowa caucus

A “bean poll” at the 2015 Iowa State Fair,
a must-attend stop for Presidential candidates.

All Eyes On Iowa

As the first primary vote of the Presidential election, every four years sees the Hawkeye State inundated with campaign staffs, “get out the vote” operations, and reporters. Oh jeez, all the reporters. Presidential candidates are expected to spend around $30 million on the 2016 Iowa caucus. $10 million of that will be just for TV ads. Between TV, radio, newspapers, hotels, event venues, and service industries, just about every Iowan will see a financial benefit from the campaign.

The Iowa Caucus As Predictor

With the months and months of campaigning and media coverage in Iowa, how valuable is a win for a Presidential candidate? Starting with the first Republican caucus in Iowa, here are the results:

GOP Iowa Caucus And Eventual Nominees

Election YearIowa Caucus WinnerRepublican NomineeRepublican Victory or Loss
in Presidential Election
2012Rick SantorumMitt RomneyRepublican Loss to Barack Obama
2008Mike HuckabeeJohn McCainRepublican loss to Barack Obama
2004George W Bush (unopposed)George W BushRepublican Victory (2nd term)
2000George W BushGeorge W BushRepublican Victory (1st term)
1996Bob DoleBob DoleRepublican loss to Bill Clinton
1992George HW Bush (unopposed)George HW BushRepublican loss to Bill Clinton
1988Bob DoleGeorge HW BushRepublican Victory
1984Ronald Reagan (unopposed)Ronald ReaganRepublican Victory (2nd term)
1980George HW BushRonald ReaganRepublican Victory (1st term)
1976Gerald FordGerald FordRepublican loss to Jimmy Carter
A table showing which winners of the GOP Iowa Caucus went on to win their party's nomination, and win the general election

From the table, we can see that only three times since the GOP Iowa caucus began in 1976 has a Republican candidate that won Iowa also secured his party’s nomination (discounting incumbent Presidents running unopposed).

Of those three (Ford in 1976, Dole in 1996, and George W Bush in 2000) only the younger Bush has won Iowa AND the White House.

Don’t Take New Hampshire For Granite

Jeb in NH trying for a hat trick for the Bush dynasty (Michael Vadon)

Jeb in NH trying for a hat trick for the Bush dynasty (Michael Vadon)

New Hampshire lays claim to the first Presidential primary in the nation, celebrated by their use of the acronym FITN (First In The Nation). While not lavished with quite the same smothering attention as Iowa, I’m sure most Granite Staters are glad when the cameras leave. While some people (usually the losers) claim that Iowa’s caucus format rewards a zealous ground game more than it predicts electability, New Hampshire voters have their own independent streak when it comes to voting.

With that in mind, let’s see how well New Hampshire does in picking the future GOP Presidential nominee:

Election YearNH Primary WinnerRepublican NomineeRepublican Victory or Loss
in Presidential Election
2012Mitt RomneyMitt RomneyRepublican Loss to Barack Obama
2008John McCainJohn McCainRepublican Loss to Barack Obama
2004George W Bush (unopposed)George W BushRepublican Victory (2nd term)
2000John McCainGeorge W BushRepublican Victory (1st term)
1996Pat BuchananBob DoleRepublican loss to Bill Clinton
1992George HW Bush (unopposed)George HW BushRepublican loss to Bill Clinton
1988George HW BushGeorge HW BushRepublican Victory
1984Ronald Reagan (unopposed)Ronald ReaganRepublican Victory (2nd term)
1980Ronald ReaganRonald ReaganRepublican Victory (1st term)
1976Gerald FordGerald FordRepublican loss to Jimmy Carter

Since 1976, the New Hampshirites have been a bit more successful than Iowans at predicting the eventual GOP nominee, at five to three (excluding sitting Presidents): Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, George HW Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Of these five, two went on the claim the White House—Reagan against Carter, and Ronnie’s successor GHW Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Exit Poll

Rand Paul making the rounds in NH (Michael Vadon)

Rand Paul making the rounds in NH
(Michael Vadon)

While Iowa and New Hampshire can play important roles in cutting down the number of GOP Presidential candidates, they are not the infallible prognosticators that many would like to believe (especially the candidates that win there).

Interestingly, no Republican Presidential candidate has won both Iowa and New Hampshire, and gone on to win the general election. In fact, the only year Iowa and New Hampshire picked the same man was in 1976, when Gerald Ford won both states, and the GOP nomination, only to have the stigma of pardoning Nixon denying him the general election.