Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Are The Iowa Caucuses Overrated?

As the orchestra begins tuning up and the audience starts filing in from the lobby, the curtain is about to rise on the opening of the 2012 Presidential Race. Act One will focus on the Republican Party and who they will select as their nominee, to challenge President Obama in is re-election efforts.

The first state to hold any binding vote for delegates has, since 1972, has been the great state of Iowa. The Iowa Caucus has been deemed important to candidates, due to the media and voter attention the winner usually derives. As noted in Wikipedia:

The Iowa caucuses are noteworthy for the amount of media attention they receive during U.S. presidential election years. Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States. Although only about one percent of the nation's delegates are chosen by the Iowa State Convention, the Iowa caucuses have served as an early indication of which candidates for president might win the nomination of their political party at that party’s national convention.”

But is this contention truly accurate?

For the Republican Party, who adopted the caucus format in 1976, there have been 9 such events through the 2008 campaign. Of those nine, three were uncontested races, as the incumbent Presidents, Bush II, Bush I & Reagan, ran unopposed. The remaining six contested events saw the winner go on to win their party’s nomination only 33% of the time. If you discount Reagan’s challenge to sitting President Ford in 1976 and look at the five open contests, the winning percentage inches up to 40%. Not very rewarding odds or results, considering the attention, time and money, candidates need to invest there.

By contrast, the New Hampshire Primary has had quite a different effect on GOP Presidential nomination campaigns. Many political historians and prognosticators see NH as having a greater impact, due to its timing and increased media attention. It has had the ability to make, break or resurrect campaigns. As pointed out in Wikipedia:

“Controlling for other factors statistically, a win in New Hampshire increases a candidate's share of the final primary count in all states by 27 percentage points.[5]

Before the Iowa caucus first received national attention in the 1970s (Republicans began caucusing in Iowa in 1976), the New Hampshire primary was the first binding indication of which presidential candidate would receive the party nomination. In defense of their primary, voters of New Hampshire have tended to downplay the importance of the Iowa caucus. "The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents," said then-Governor John H. Sununu in 1988.[7]

Since then, the primary has been considered an early measurement of the national attitude toward the candidates for nomination. Unlike a caucus, the primary measures the number of votes each candidate received directly, rather than through precinct delegates. The popular vote gives lesser-known candidates a chance to demonstrate their appeal to the electorate at large.”

So how does a New Hampshire victory compare to Iowa in terms of boosting a GOP candidate’s chances of going forward to win the nomination?

There have been fifteen NH primaries from 1952 through 2008. During those years, five races were uncontested or viable, due to incumbency. Two other races saw challengers to a sitting President – Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H. W. Bush in 1992, both of who were victorious in the primary and being re-nominated. Of the remaining eight open New Hampshire primaries, the winner eventually advanced to nomination victory on six occasions or 75% of the time.

Something to keep in mind as the plot develops in the upcoming political drama.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. In short, no two election years are the same. Sometimes Iowa is more important, sometimes NH is. It is too soon to tell which will be more influencial, but both will be influencial in their own way. NH does have the advantage of being a Primary state, but in the end we have to see who is running and who beats the expectation game.


David said...

Excellent post Doug,

I have always felt that Iowa was overrated and not a true picture of the Will Of The People. Like the first primary where everyone's vote is counted.

I never realized the win/loss ratio was so in favor of the NH picks.

Thanks foe shedding some light on this.

Anonymous said...

"I never realized the win/loss ratio was so in favor of the NH picks." As Matt pointed out on the other site, the score is really only 3 to 2.


Anonymous said...

""The people of Iowa pick corn"

They sure did in 2008. Talk about corny.

Anonymous said...

Good Post Doug,

Being a Romney fan, I'm glad his chances are better to capture the nomination with a NH win.

Although an NH and NV wins will be doubly nice.


Matt "MWS" said...


Good piece, and great opening metaphor.

If we look at the same span of time when both contests were active in their current form with open contests, there have been 5 such elections; 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008.

Iowa got it “right” in 2 of those; 1996 and 2000. New Hampshire got it right in 3; 1980, 1988, and 2008. So looked at that way, the “score” is 3-2 New Hampshire. That’s not a lot of data to hang your hat on. Prior to the ’76 election, the nominating process was so radically different that I don’t think it’s very applicable to today.

What is more striking is that among those open primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire never selected the same candidate.

illinoisguy said...

This much I know for sure, if I lived in a big state like California, I wouldn't care a whole lot about how either one of them voted. The big states have so many more delegates, it's strange they pay so much attention to these two states. The fact that the first four will count more though will benefit Romney this year. He should do decent in Iowa, win NH, win Nevada, and possibly win SC (endorsements).

Anonymous said...

Hey MWS, welcome to the Darkside


GetReal said...

Nice to see you posting here, Matt.

This is Ron.

Matt "MWS" said...

Thanks, guys.

kelly said...

Iowa is more of a prelude to the primaries. I think it's important only because in political circles when we start talking Iowa, we political junkies begin to anticipate the elections. I suppose the media does as well. So It's more PR than being relevant.

phil said...

Iowa is important because the media sees it that way. It's the 'starting line' for 2012!

Right Wingnut said...


Are you suggesting that the Iowa Caucus is overrated because you think it to be true...or because you hope it to be true?

BOSMAN said...

Welcome Matt!

I hope you come back often. Huckabee can use the support. So can TC.

Ask me my opinion again if the polls change and Romney takes the lead in Iowa. Right now, New Hampshire CLEARLY is the most important.

Doug NYC GOP said...

RWN - LOL - Not everything is a conspiracy.

There were no "Romney" motivations in writing this. Actually the Michelle Bachmann article this mornig along with the bit from HuffPost about voter interest, sparked it.

I've always felt it seemed overated, to try and declare people in or out, just because of this one quirky contest. It always seems the media hypes it, then laments how much time and meny they have to spend covering it. Seems silly when you actually look at the results it yields.

True it does give people a shot to break out - GHW Bush in 1980 for example; but for the most part the results are sketchy. At least in my opinion. NH always seems to have a more important effect: Reagan 1980, Clinton 1992 etc.

Right Wingnut said...

I've read, on more than one occasion, that a Romney victory in New Hampshire would be largely discounted since the Boston media market ecompasses most of the state.

If he loses the state, or narrowly ekes out a victory over a surging challenger, it could seriously blunt his momentum.

Doug NYC GOP said...


Are you suggesting that NH Scenario because you think it to be true...or because you hope it to be true?

Doug NYC GOP said...

I do chuckle how a lot folks view everything someone might write or say, through the prism of that person's preferred candidate.

I wrote this article more for the historical/track record aspects, rather than how it might effect my candidate, Romney.

A lot folks talk about SC the same way. How since 1980 it has selewcted evry winner, and that's true. But it's the winner of NH who has gone on to win SC in all those open contests. The other times there was an incumbent President.

Rules as they say, are made to be broken.

Doug NYC GOP said...

To clarify - the winner of the NH primary has gone on to win the SC primary 5 out 6 times in open contest. The exception was 1996, when Buchanan won NH and GHW Bush won SC.

Anonymous said...

"I wrote this article more for the historical/track record aspects, rather than how it might effect my candidate, Romney." Haha, well, let's say the jury is still out.


Ann said...

Good article Doug.

It's good to learn a little something each day. I appreciate your research.

Revolution 2010 said...

Great Post Doug,

Iowa is nothing more than a greatly overrated media event.

NH, is the first state that lets the BALLOT BOX do the talking rather than the efforts of candidate's organizations to get people to a caucus.

Doug NYC GOP said...

OJ - Appreciate the reticence.