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Does it Even Matter Who Wins the Iowa Caucus?

A look at the history of Iowa caucus victories in comparison to the eventual party nominees shows that it might not even matter who wins the Iowa caucus.

Being the “first in the nation” contest, Iowa goes through cycles in terms of levels of importance and value. Some years, voters say that Iowa has too much influence in deciding party nominees. Other years, they say Iowa has no value at all, and all that really matters is New Hampshire or Super Tuesday. This is why some campaigns choose not to invest a whole lot of time or money in Iowa, and instead focus on other contests.

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor begins with this paragraph:

What do Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney and John McCain all have in common? All of these politicians went on to win their party’s presidential nomination after losing the Iowa caucus.

Since 1972, 55% of Democratic Iowa caucus victors, and only 43% of Republican Iowa caucus victors went on to win their party’s respective nominations. That means that the majority of Republican Iowa winners didn’t win their party’s nomination.

In 2012, it was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum who won the Iowa caucus. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was declared the winner the night of the caucus by just eight votes out of about 120,000. However, two weeks later, after counting the votes from additional precincts, Rick Santorum was declared the victor by 34 votes. Former Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul finished third with 21.5%, but votes from eight districts were “lost,” so we’ll never know the whole story. Later at the Republican National Convention, however, almost 79% of Iowa’s national delegates went to Ron Paul, 22 out of 28.

Regardless, it was Romney who went on to win the New Hampshire primary in 2012 and eventually the nomination.

In the months leading up to the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain was downsizing his campaign staff because of a lack of funds. He had slumped in national polls to third or fourth place. He finished fourth place in Iowa. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee had won the state’s caucus contest. But John McCain went on the win the New Hampshire primary and become the nominee.

Senator John McCain wasn’t the only fourth-place loser in Iowa to eventually become the party’s nominee. In 1992, then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton finished a distant fourth in the Democratic Iowa caucus. Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin had invested much of his campaign energy on winning Iowa – his home state – but his 76% finish in the state’s caucus was basically ignored.

Bill Clinton didn’t even win New Hampshire in 1992. In fact, he didn’t win a primary until Georgia, some three weeks after the Iowa caucus. But he still went on to win his party’s nomination and the presidency.

After surveying the history of Iowa’s caucus contests, it seems there are some statistical rules in predicting eventual nominees. First of all, no nominee in either party has ever finished worse than fourth place in Iowa since 1972. That tells us that whoever is not in the top four following Iowa’s caucus Monday night will almost certainly drop out of the race within two or three weeks. It also tells us that it basically doesn’t matter who is in the top four; all of them will be regarded as “electable” and capable of maintaining or picking up momentum.

Second of all, what matters most is how a candidate is able to perform compared to his expectations. If a candidate is considered a shoe-in in Iowa, but then loses, that’s likely to doom his chances.

If someone like Senator Rand Paul who’s polling around 5% in the latest Iowa poll – wins the Iowa caucus, or at least finishes in the top three, that could very well propel him to later victories.

So, does it matter who wins the Iowa caucus? Yes and no. Iowa contributes to the primary process by whittling down the number of candidates from ten or 12 to just three or four. But every primary season is different. Donald Trump is the wild card this time. Even if he doesn’t win Iowa or even finish in the top three, he can still easily win the New Hampshire primary and many others. And even if Ted Cruz wins Iowa, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win every other contest. That might be his only victory.

Candidates should be looking to finish somewhere in the top three in Iowa in order to maintain or gain any momentum. Right now, polls are showing the top five in Iowa are Donald Trump (28%), Ted Cruz (23%), Marco Rubio (15%), Ben Carson (10%), and Rand Paul (5%).

In the end, using the Iowa caucuses to try to predict who the eventual nominee will be is like trying to predict the stock market. There are just way too many factors involved. The Iowa caucus is a lot more useful in determining who the nominee will not be.

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