With all of the media attention being given to the Republican primary events, I had to wonder how important some of these early primaries, caucuses, and polls really are? Does the Ames Straw Poll the August before each election year matter? What about the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire primary, and South Carolina primary?
While other states like Arizona, Florida, and Nevada have moved their caucuses and primaries earlier in hopes of gaining additional importance, Iowa and New Hampshire have reigned supreme since 1980, with South Carolina often leading off with early primaries as well. This year, the primaries and caucuses will be held in the following order:
Iowa (Feb. 6)
New Hampshire (Feb. 14)
Nevada (Feb. 18)
South Carolina (Feb. 28)
Iowa has gone 1st in 2 of the last 5 Republican presidential primaries going back to 1980. It’s also gone 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, typically being preceded by smaller states that were largely ignored by the candidates. New Hampshire has gone 2nd in one of those races, 3rd in two, and 4th and 5th in the others. South Carolina has gone 5th three times and 9th and 13th. Nevada’s caucus process is relatively new, as they conducted primaries until 1996 and didn’t officially endorse anyone in their 2000 caucus.
As states jockeyed for earlier position in the primary calendar in each election cycle, the Republican National Committee finally added a rule for the 2008 election cycle penalizing any state who held their primary prior to February 5th. Wyoming, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida all had half of their delegates stripped at the national convention because they violated the rule. (Since the caucus process technically doesn’t elect a candidate, but simply elects delegates who will choose their preferred candidate at state conventions, states who held caucuses prior to February 5th were not penalized.)
The Republican National Committee amended their rule for 2012. Under the new guidelines, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina are permitted to hold their primaries and caucuses in February. States who elect their delegates proportionally are permitted to vote in March, and all others can hold their elections in April or later. Anyone violating these rules, as Arizona is poised to do, will have half of their delegates stripped.
So that’s the history of how we got to where we are. I wanted to take a look at results since 1980 to see if there are any predicting factors that I could use to try to determine which events are actually significant to winning the GOP nomination. I was looking for something like Ohio, which has only sided with a losing candidate in a general presidential election once (1960, Nixon-Kennedy) since 1944.
Since 1980, George W. Bush and Bob Dole are the only candidates to win the Ames Straw Poll or the Iowa Caucus (each won both events). Ronald Reagan placed 2nd in both events and George H. W. Bush placed 3rd in each. Meanwhile, John McCain placed 10th in the Ames Straw Poll and a distant 4th in the Iowa Caucus.
In New Hampshire, the eventual nominee has won 3 times and place 2nd twice. South Carolina has a perfect 5-for-5 record with all 5 victors winning the nomination.
While it would be easy to point to South Carolina as the predictor of success, remember, they’ve held their primary 13th and 9th overall and 5th three times. While they’ve consistently been an earlier state, the field of candidates is usually down to 2 or 3 by the time South Carolinians are voting.
So, does Iowa matter? That’s the original question I was asking. I wanted to believe it didn’t. I wanted to believe the hype around the Iowa Straw Poll was just hype.
But I’ve proven myself wrong. Sure, John McCain came in 10th at Ames and none of the top 3 Ames winners from this year are likely to win the nomination. But no candidate has won the nomination since 1980 without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire. Sure, every candidate has won in South Carolina, but they’ve won in either Iowa or New Hampshire first.
Say what you will about candidates focusing too much of their strategy on either New Hampshire or Iowa, but each state matters. Even if a candidate doesn’t win one of these states’ contests, placing outside of the top 3 is a recipe for defeat.
Of course, if there were some silver bullet for winning the nomination, a much smarter political consultant would have found it already. But hey, I’ve satisfied my curiosity.