Are the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential primary contests reliable predictors of political outcomes or are they proving grounds that give liftoff to the next presidential star in the political constellation — or both? Or are they simply spoilers, winnowing the field in the hard-fought battle for a party’s nomination?
The answer to those questions is important because we’re now a week away from the official kickoff of the 2024 presidential nominating process. Political reporters and pundits are in overdrive, setting the parameters for calling the winners and losers, and assessing the candidates, the wisdom of their strategies and their odds of winning their party’s brass ring.
It feels a little like watching NFL pregame commentary without looking at a team’s track record. We’re hearing plenty of predictions and even more speculation on who’s got to do what to win, or maybe just survive to fight another day; and much of this punditry is offered up without context, or in many cases, actual understanding of past results. With social media set to characterize the outcomes at light speed, a look back at previous nominating contests can help provide some of that missing context.
Overall, after an analysis of the outcomes of both states in producing party nominees, or presidents for that matter, the answer seems to be New Hampshire has the edge — despite Iowa’s unique ability to draw candidate and media focus. Looking at the last seven Republican presidential nominating contests without a GOP incumbent president (1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016), there are significant differences between the results of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in terms of who becomes the party’s presidential nominee. In those seven Iowa caucuses, two of the caucus winners have gone on to win the Republican presidential nomination. In New Hampshire, in those seven primaries, five of the winners went on to win the nomination.
That’s not to say Iowa isn’t important. It is. But the Iowa caucuses are a different breed of cat organizationally than New Hampshire’s semi-open primary. In Iowa, participants must be registered Republicans, although they can register or change registration on caucus night. In the New Hampshire primary, nonaffiliated voters can ask for either a Republican or Democrat ballot which puts independents into the mix as potential king or queen makers, a totally different dynamic.
In Iowa, Ronald Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in 1980 by a slim margin of 30 percent to 32 percent — but went on to win the nomination and the presidency. In the 1988 Iowa caucus, George H.W. Bush came in third (19 percent) behind Robert Dole (37 percent) and Pat Robertson (25 percent). But it was George H.W. Bush who would take the prize as the party’s nominee in New Orleans.
It was John McCain’s turn to lose the Iowa caucuses in 2008 with 13 percent of the vote, coming in fourth. Mike Huckabee came out on top with 34 percent, Mitt Romney at 25 percent and Fred Thompson in third with 13.4 percent.
So, Iowa’s nomination track record comes down to only two out of seven, or 28.6 percent, of the caucus winners went on to win the nomination. The caucuses don’t have a great track record of producing nominees, or those who won the presidency, with George W. Bush being the one notable exception.
Looking at those same seven nomination contests, the numbers are substantially better for the Granite State. Five of the seven winners of the New Hampshire primary — Reagan, George H.W. Bush, McCain, Romney and Donald Trump — went on to claim the Republican nomination. The two who lost New Hampshire were Dole in 1996 to Pat Buchanan by 1 percentage point and George W. Bush, who lost the 2000 primary to McCain (30 percent to 49 percent), although he went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
For those of you in an office pool, this means New Hampshire has a 71.4 percent record of producing nominees — more than twice what we saw in the Iowa caucuses. Of the four Republicans who won the presidency, three won New Hampshire. Only George W. Bush lost New Hampshire and still went on to become president.
What’s a political observer to do with caucus chaos only a week away? I decided in the interests of sanity to forgo predictions or set expectations. Rather, I think this short history might give us some useful insight into whether either of these two first-in-the-nation states could actually determine the Republican Party’s 2024 nominee and, perhaps, even the presidency.
Context matters. Historical results matter. And it should matter to the pundits who spin the outcomes and the reporters chronicling the results of what will be one of the most important primary processes and general elections in our lifetime. Jumping to conclusions either prematurely or without understanding the past interferes in that process.
Inevitably, next Monday, the discussion will focus on each candidate’s final percentage and ranking and what that means for their future prospects going into New Hampshire. But a first place finish in Iowa doesn’t guarantee the nomination down the road.
Historically, finishing first in Iowa (Dole and George W. Bush) or finishing third and fourth (George H.W. Bush and McCain) produced the same number of nominees, two for each category. Finishing second in the caucuses actually produced the most nominees (Reagan, Romney and Trump).
Over the seven primaries in New Hampshire, however, first place was a positive indicator of a candidate’s chances of winning the nomination. Five of the seven candidates who finished first in New Hampshire (Reagan, George H.W. Bush, McCain, Romney and Trump) went on to capture the nomination. But second place was also a potential path forward. Dole and George W. Bush were both second-place finishers.
So, when the pundits tell us next week that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley must “defy expectations” in Iowa and win in New Hampshire or at least come close to Trump to stay viable, pause. When they say Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis must come in second behind Trump in the Hawkeye State or his campaign is over, employ a little skepticism. And when anchors assert that without overwhelming Trump victories, we might be seeing the first crack in his armor, remember that a little history goes a long way in politics.
It’s important to put the influence of both states in context.