What Has the Iowa Caucus Done for Us Lately?

All this talk about the Iowa Caucus got me wondering. Not about whether or not Trump will keep his momentum, or whether Bernie has the power to stop Hillary. There’s plenty of time to talk about that. And there’s plenty of voices to do it. My opinion would be just one more to add to a very crowded chatter box.

What I’m wondering about is the value of the Iowa Caucus itself. A lot of weight is placed on this event when it comes to choosing a presidential nominee. The speculation goes on for months, and now that the 2016 event is behind us, there is even more speculation about what the results mean and where everyone goes from here.

Will Ted Cruz go the distance? History says definitely maybe. Image: Fox News

Will Ted Cruz go the distance? History says definitely maybe.
Image: Fox News

I took a look back at past Iowa caucuses to get a sense of the power of presidential prognostication that those wily Hawkeyes possess. Just how often has the winner of the Iowa Caucus gone on to win their party’s nomination?

For the Democrats, in seven of the eleven caucuses between 1972 and 2012 the winner of the caucus went on to become the party’s nominee for president. But if you discount the nominees for reelection who almost always get the party nod by default—Carter in ’80, Clinton in ’96, and Obama in ’12—that number drops to four.

Jimmy Carter got a nice bounce in 1976 when he “won” the Iowa caucus. I use quotes because the largest percentage of votes went to “uncommitted.” Carter got second place, but he was first if you count only real people, so he was considered the winner. In any event, the so-called victory gave him national name recognition and helped him come out on top that November when the national mood was generally soured against Republicans.

Barack Obama cashed in similarly in 2008, shattering the aura of inevitability that surrounded Hillary Clinton, and raising his national name recognition in the process.

For the Republicans in the time frame 1976 to 2012 (they didn’t caucus in ’72), six out of ten caucus winners later seized the party nomination; but that number drops to two if you discount the nominees running for reelection—Ford in ’76, Reagan in ’84, Bush in ’92, and Bush in ’04.

It’s worth noting that Ford won a hard fought caucus in 1976, beating Ronald Reagan by only 2 points. Reagan’s strong showing that year helped set him up for his earth shattering presidential victory in 1980, though he lost the Iowa caucus that year to George H.W. Bush, the man who would eventually be his running mate.

So this back-of-the-napkin calculation tells us that Iowans don’t necessarily have their finger on the pulse of the national electorate. That’s no reflection on the good people of Iowa, but it does make you stop and think about why the media and the pundits out there put so much thought into this first-in-the-nation event presidential contest. History proves that we are generally no closer to learning who our next president will be after the Iowa caucus than we were before it happened.