We are just a month away from the most meaningful election ever known to mankind, the Iowa caucuses. These early caucuses make or break presidential candidates, as everyone knows. Here is a typical quote from “The American Thinker” who bills himself as a former Republican insider:
Here’s a news flash. The Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary will not matter this year, at least not in the way they’ve mattered every four years for as long as I can remember. You can take that to the bank.
Except that the Iowa caucuses have ALWAYS mostly never mattered, especially on the Republican side. Let’s take a look at the list of winners and losers from Wikipedia, we will start with the Republicans, with some side notes from me, for historical perspective. My notes will be in bold.
Republican Iowa Caucus Results
This was viewed as a big win for the upstart Reagan, but Ford went on to win the nomination, but lose the general election.
- 1980: George H. W. Bush (32%), Ronald Reagan (30%), Howard Baker (15%), John Connally (9%), Phil Crane (7%), John B. Anderson (4%), and Bob Dole (2%)
Wait, Reagan didn’t win Iowa? That’s right he didn’t, but went on to win the nomination anyway.
- 1984: Ronald Reagan (unopposed)
Finally, Reagan wins Iowa.
- 1988: Bob Dole (37%), Pat Robertson (25%), George H. W. Bush (19%), Jack Kemp (11%), and Pete DuPont (7%)
Wait, the sitting Vice President of supposedly the most popular president ever didn’t even win Iowa? But he did go on to win the nomination, of course. Note the strong showing of Pat Robertson, the first to run for National Pastor.
- 1992: George H. W. Bush (unopposed)
Bush wins! And then loses the general election.
- 1996: Bob Dole (26%), Pat Buchanan (23%), Lamar Alexander (18%), Steve Forbes (10%), Phil Gramm (9%), Alan Keyes (7%), Richard Lugar (4%), and Morry Taylor (1%)
His strong showing in Iowa was going to propel Buchanan to the nomination, except that it didn’t. Notice the beginnings of the Republican clown car.
- 2000: George W. Bush (41%), Steve Forbes (31%), Alan Keyes (14%), Gary Bauer (9%), John McCain (5%), and Orrin Hatch (1%)
Iowa finally votes for an eventual nominee in a contested year. But Bush was pretty much an establishment candidate.
- 2004: George W. Bush (unopposed)
No surprise here.
- 2008: Mike Huckabee (34%), Mitt Romney (25%), Fred Thompson (13%), John McCain (13%), Ron Paul (10%), Rudy Giuliani (4%), and Duncan Hunter (1%)
The Republican clown car keeps growing. Iowa missed by a mile by voting for the guy running for National Pastor.
- 2012: Rick Santorum (25%), Mitt Romney (25%), Ron Paul (21%), Newt Gingrich (13%), Rick Perry (10%), Michele Bachmann (5%), and Jon Huntsman (0.6%)
The next instance of the clown car, once again Iowa goes for a guy who wants to be National Pastor, but at least they get it half right.
Now let’s see how the Democrats do.
- 1972 (January 24): “Uncommitted” (36%), Edmund Muskie (36%), George McGovern (23%), Hubert Humphrey (2%), Eugene McCarthy (1%), Shirley Chisholm (1%), andHenry M. Jackson (1%)
Muskie pulls out a big win by tying “Uncommitted” but goes unnominated.
- 1976 (January 19): “Uncommitted” (37%), Jimmy Carter (28%) Birch Bayh (13%), Fred R. Harris (10%), Morris Udall (6%), Sargent Shriver (3%), and Henry M. Jackson (1%)
The Iowa mythmaker! Unknown Jimmy Carter pulls out a second place finish and uses the new found fame to go on to the nomination and the Presidency.
Kennedy’s strong showing foreshadows Carter’s electoral weakness, but everyone already knew that without Iowa.
- 1984 (February 20): Walter Mondale (49%), Gary Hart (17%), George McGovern (10%), Alan Cranston (7%), John Glenn (4%), Reubin Askew (3%), and Jesse Jackson (2%)
As a former Vice President, Mondale was no surprise here. Gary Hart later self destructed anway.
- 1988 (February 8): Dick Gephardt (31%), Paul Simon (27%), Michael Dukakis (22%), and Bruce Babbitt (6%)
A bit of a surprise win for Iowa neighbor Gephardt, who also went unnominated. Neighbor Paul Simon rode his strong showing to an appearance on Saturday Night Live, but not the nomination either.
- 1992 (February 10): Tom Harkin (76%), “Uncommitted” (12%), Paul Tsongas (4%), Bill Clinton (3%), Bob Kerrey (2%), and Jerry Brown (2%)
Bill Clinton’s big break out win — NOT. Harkin was governor of Iowa at the time.
Another big suprise.
- 2004 (January 19): John Kerry (38%), John Edwards (32%), Howard Dean (18%), Dick Gephardt (11%), and Dennis Kucinich (1%)
Kerry was the establishment candidate. Edwards rode his strong showing to the Vice Presidential nomination. Howard Dean screamed himself out of the race after this.
- 2008 (January 3): Barack Obama (38%), John Edwards (30%), Hillary Clinton (29%), Bill Richardson (2%), Joe Biden (1%)
This also fits the Jimmy Carter narrative. Political newcomer defeats establishment candidates and goes on to the nomination and wins the Presidency.
No surprise here.
Only twice in 10 elections, on the Republican side, did Iowa provide early victories for candidates looking to break out, but both were establishment candidates, Bob Dole and George W. Bush. After W, Iowa Republicans have gone looney tunes and tend to vote for people running for National Pastor rather than president. Their choices are not only out of step with the electorate as a whole, they aren’t even mainstream for Republicans.
On the Democratic side, there have been two genuine breakout candidates after winning in Iowa, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Democratic voters in Iowa are closer the national electorate, but the predictive value of a win there is not very strong.
The reason for the low predictive value for Iowa is twofold. First the caucuses are “closed” in that they are only open to registered members of each of the parties. A majority of Iowans register as independents, so they can’t participate. Even among the registered party members, participation in the caucuses is only about 20%, so the caucuses are an unrepresentative sample of an unrepresentative sample.
So, here is what I think we should look for in Iowa.
There could possibly be a meaningful result on the Democratic side if Sanders were to win. A big win there could give him a pretty good chance he could follow Carter’s and Obama’s footsteps all the way to the White House. More likely though, is a significant win for Hilary Clinton.
On the Republican side, a win in Iowa could very well be political suicide. Turns out there really isn’t any future in running for National Pastor. Are you listening, Ted Cruz?