Sometime on Thursday night, at least one Democrat and Republican will be declared “winners” of the Iowa caucuses. These candidates may or may not have received the most votes; the declaration will be a subjective judgment by the media.
And no matter what New Hampshire’s proudly independent voters say, history shows that this verdict will spill over into the first primary state, which will vote on January 8. Iowa’s results—or more precisely, the media’s interpretation of them—alters, sometimes profoundly, the New Hampshire electorate’s perception of the presidential field.
Every Iowa “winner” gets some kind of a boost in New Hampshire. But the type of boost varies dramatically, from staggering to inconsequential. The variable is the degree to which the Iowa outcome represents a surprise: the more the media is caught off-guard by the results, the more the media will hype those results and, thus, the bigger the bounce will be.
How will Iowa re-shape the ’08 race? For some guidance, here’s a look back at the media’s interpretation of past Iowa results and how it has spilled over into New Hampshire.
The ‘04 Iowa results was greeted as an earth-shattering surprise. On the eve of the vote, four candidates—Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt, John Edwards, and John Kerry—were clustered within reach of the lead in Iowa. But on caucus night, Kerry, whose campaign had gone comatose in the fall of 2003, won with a staggering 38 percent of the vote—five points ahead of Edwards and doubling the total of Dean, who had been the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire for months.
Kerry’s triumph—and Dean’s surprisingly meager showing, followed by his infamously odd concession speech—dramatically reshuffled the Democratic order in New Hampshire. Days before Iowans caucused, Kerry sat at 12 percent in New Hampshire, lagging far behind Dean (35 percent) and even Wesley Clark (18 percent). But the jolt of post-Iowa momentum lifted Kerry to a decisive 12-point win over Dean in New Hampshire. The rest of the states tumbled like dominos for Kerry.
This is a textbook example of the potential impact of a sweeping win (and of an unexpected stumble) in Iowa.
Al Gore won a two-man Iowa race over Bill Bradley by 28 points, but his bounce was minimal, since Gore had been expected to win Iowa handily for months. In fact, the Bradley campaign probably erred by contesting the state at all, a decision that resulted in a slight extension of Gore’s lead in New Hampshire in the wake of Iowa. But that bounce fizzled quickly and Bradley came within four points of winning New Hampshire, falling short only because independent voters flocked disproportionately to the Republican race, where John McCain was running.
It only warrants mention since some news outlets and back-of-the-pack campaigns have been misleadingly calling attention to it, touting the fact that Bill Clinton received less than three percent that year, and yet still won the nomination with ease. What they don’t mention is that, for all intents and purposes, the caucuses didn’t take place in 1992, thanks to the entrance of favorite son Senator Tom Harkin. No candidate, besides Harkin, actively campaigned in the state, almost no one showed up on caucus night, and the final result—Harkin received nearly 80 percent, with “uncommitted” finishing second at 12 percent—was given about two inches of space in most newspapers the next day.
Structurally, the ‘88 Democratic race is somewhat similar to the ‘08 contest, with three candidates—Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon, and Michael Dukakis—clustered near the top, just like this year. In ’88, each of the three passed the Iowa viability test established for them by the media and, thus, were deemed winners. The bounce was most pronounced for Gephardt, since he was unknown nationally and had poured all of his meager resources into Iowa. But because Dukakis—the New Hampshire and national front -runner heading into Iowa—also fared surprisingly well, his numbers didn’t measurably drop as a result. Because Simon posted a strong showing, both he and Gephardt essentially split the non-Dukakis vote in New Hampshire vote, freeing Dukakis to win a clear victory and cement his front-runner status.
Like 2004, the ‘84 results came as a revelation to the media and instantly recast the Democratic field. It was in ‘84 that Walter Mondale won Iowa by a three-to-one margin, a showing that didn’t exactly hurt him, but also didn’t help him much, since it had been expected. But before Iowa, it was unclear who—if anyone—represented Mondale’s main challenger for the nomination. By separating himself from the pack and placing second with 16 percent, Gary Hart was anointed by the media as the insurgent alternative to Mondale. New Hampshire voters, eager to buck the Mondale machine, rallied to Hart and handed him a smashing 37 to 24 percent win in the primary. Hart went on to win nearly two dozen primaries and caucuses and would have swiped the nomination from Mondale had he managed to finish him off in Alabama and Georgia.