What Victory in the Iowa Caucuses Means

What do the victories of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in their respective parties' Iowa caucuses mean for each man's likelihood of becoming President? Certainly not nothing, but not all that much either. Let's look at elections since 1976, when both parties started paying serious attention to Iowa. And let's omit consideration of elections in which an incumbent won re-election, because incumbents win the Iowa caucuses easily. (Even Jimmy Carter, the last incumbent to face a serious primary challenge, defeated Ted Kennedy by a nearly 2-1 margin in 1980). That leaves us with five data points: 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 2000.

We find that the ultimate winner of the Presidency won his party's Iowa caucuses in a contested field in at most two of these five years: George W. Bush clearly won in 2000 and Jimmy Carter beat all of his opponents in 1976, although more people voted Uncommitted than for Carter. In each of the other three years, the ultimate winner lost the Iowa caucuses, in two cases badly: In 1988 George H. W. Bush came in third behind Bob Dole (okay, from neighboring Kansas) and Pat Robertson (Huckabee without gubernatorial experience?), and in 1992 Bill Clinton got just 3% of the vote (although the leading Dems basically took a powder in deference to favorite son Tom Harkin). So historically speaking, winning the Iowa caucuses is hardly a guarantee of ultimate success.

What do the particular results mean? On the Democratic side, we now have essentially a two-person race. Edwards, having spent nearly all of the last 4 years in Iowa, and out of money, gets no bounce from his tie for second with Clinton. Clinton had a slim lead over Obama in NH before the Iowa caucuses, and the Obama Iowa bounce, plus the ability of independents to vote in NH, means that race is probably a toss-up now (which isn't to say it couldn't break for one or the other in the coming days). All of this suggests that the Democratic nomination will likely be decided by actual voters in large states. Yes, they'll have only two choices but they're two serious choices. No more debates featuring Mike Gravel (though Dennis Kucinich is likely to stay to the bitter end).

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, all is chaos. Mike Huckabee is unlikely to appeal to New England Republicans, and with very little in the way of organization or money, it's hard to imagine him winning the nomination. Romney is the big loser, of course, and if he loses to McCain in New Hampshire, that will signal an almost categorical rejection. But McCain also is short on organization and money. This opens the door, in my humble and usually wrong opinion, for Rudy Giuliani's Florida strategy. So weirdly, I pick Giuliani as the big winner among the Republicans, despite garnering just 4% of the Iowa vote.

Posted by Mike Dorf