Election 2016: How Predictive are Iowa and New Hampshire?

02/16/2016

Now that we know the results from Iowa and New Hampshire, how much do they really tell us about who will eventually capture the Democratic and Republican nominations?

As the charts in the Image Gallery indicate, the first two states have usually had some predictive power – it’s unusual for a candidate to win neither but still emerge with the nomination – but then again it’s fairly common for an eventual nominee to lose at least one of the two states.

First, let’s acknowledge that the data only go back so far: the Iowa caucuses were not started until 1972 for the Democrats and 1976 for the Republicans.

Second, we can eliminate incumbent Presidents, who usually go unchallenged. Even in the two cases of serious challenges to incumbents – Ronald Reagan taking on Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ted Kennedy challenging Jimmy Carter in 1980 – the incumbent won both Iowa and New Hampshire.

But what does the history tell us about races without an incumbent? Never has a Republican candidate won neither of the first two states and still won the nomination – a bad omen for Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Ben Carson. And while two Democrats lost both states and still became the nominee, both times involved unusual circumstances. George McGovern lost to Ed Muskie twice in 1972, but McGovern’s relatively strong second-place finishes gave him momentum, and in any event Muskie’s campaign fell apart amid allegations that he had broken down and cried while responding to allegations against his wife. In 1992 Bill Clinton lost to two regional candidates – home-state favorite Tom Harkin in Iowa and New Englander Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire – but Clinton’s second-place New Hampshire finish pushed him to the front of the pack.

Far more common is that the nominee has won at least one of the first two states. For the Republicans, Bob Dole and George W. Bush won Iowa but lost New Hampshire, while Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost Iowa but bounced back to win in New Hampshire. Three Democrats – Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and John Kerry – won both states and then gone on to capture the nomination. Walter Mondale and Barack Obama won in Iowa but lost New Hampshire, while Michael Dukakis did it the other way around.

The upshot is that for both parties, winning at least one of the first two states is usually a prerequisite to winning the nomination.

Of course this year that tells us nothing about the Democrats – there are only two candidates and they split the two states. But for the Republicans, the Iowa/New Hampshire history suggests that the nominee might be either Ted Cruz, the winner in Iowa, or Donald Trump, the winner in New Hampshire – a prospect sure to strike fear into the heart of whatever is left of the GOP Establishment. Still, establishment Republicans may take solace in the statement made by all mutual funds: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. 

Jack Citrin is the Director of IGS.

Photo of Manchester, New Hampshire by Flickr user Ted Eytan