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.
The ‘80 Iowa race played out much like ‘00 contest: a two-man race between the establishment favorite, President Jimmy Carter, and a progressive challenger, Senator Ted Kennedy. Carter, like Al Gore 20 years later, handily won the caucuses but received only a modest boost, since he’d entered as the prohibitive favorite. New Hampshire was considered the true first test of the ‘80 campaign, and the stretch between Iowa and New Hampshire was weeks longer then than it is now. Carter ended up defeating Kennedy in New Hampshire by 10 points, but that outcome owed pretty much nothing to the Iowa result.
1976 and 1972
The first relevant Democratic caucuses, in both ‘72 and ‘76 a single Democrat invested in the state while the rest of the field mostly ignored it. (In fact, in both ‘72 and ’76, some candidates hadn’t even officially entered the race when Iowa caucused.) But the media coverage that George McGovern and Jimmy Carter reaped from their strong showings boosted their standing in New Hampshire and nationally and signaled the end of an era in which party conventions, and not primaries and caucuses, determined presidential nominees.
Several candidates contested the 2000 caucuses, but the two heavyweights were George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. Bush won, 42 to 30 percent, over Forbes (and Alan Keyes was third with 14 percent), a result that surprised absolutely no one. Bush spent lavishly in the state and enjoyed extensive establishment support. Forbes also threw wads of cash at the caucuses, and benefited from the lack of any other big-name alternatives to Bush. But Forbes failed to deliver the surprise showing that he needed to convince the media his campaign was more than a shadow of his modestly successful 1996 bid. That opened the door in New Hampshire for John McCain, who had sworn off Iowa, in part to conserve resources and in part because of his supposedly lethal ethanol skepticism. McCain was a natural fit in New Hampshire, and since neither Bush nor Forbes received a boost from Iowa, the stage was set for McCain’s astonishing last-minute rise in New Hampshire, where he blasted Bush by 19 points, setting the stage for the ugly and decisive Bush-McCain contest in South Carolina.
Here is another example of how candidates can win the caucuses without actually winning them. Technically, Bob Dole was the Iowa victor in ‘96. But his 26 percent showing was a letdown, since he’d earned the nickname “the President of Iowa” after a smashing 1988 triumph in the state. Instead, the post-Iowa momentum belonged to Pat Buchanan (second place with 23 percent) and Lamar Alexander (third with 17 percent), who both exceeded expectations. Dole had enjoyed modest leads over those two in New Hampshire polls, but in the days after Iowa, New Hampshire became a three-way tie. On primary night, Buchanan won with 29 percent, ahead of Dole’s 26 percent and Alexander’s 23 percent. Early returns actually showed Dole in third place, behind Alexander, and Dole later said that he’d been ready to drop out of the race if those numbers had held.
Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush had been the clear front-runner nationally and in New Hampshire for a year—but Iowa damn near sank his entire operation. That Bush lost the state to Bob Dole was not a huge surprise; the Kansas Senator’s “I’m one of you” message had resonated. But no one anticipated the magnitude of Dole’s win (he notched 37 percent) or the identity of the second place finisher: Pat Robertson, whose 25 percent placed him comfortably ahead of Bush (18 percent). Since the media regarded Robertson as more fringe than mainstream, the post-Iowa momentum almost exclusively went to Dole. The outcome also yielded a flurry of “Is this the end for Bush?” stories. Bush’s pre-Iowa 20-point lead in New Hampshire was erased in four days; on the Friday before the primary, Dole took a 32-29 percent lead in the state and seemed headed for victory—and the nomination. But Bush saved his campaign with a massive last-minute blitz of attack ads, ridiculing Dole as a “straddler” on taxes, a poisonous charge in Live Free or Die New Hampshire. Bush recovered enough to beat Dole by nine points, which allowed the V.P. to recover his inevitability and to finish Dole off in the South.
The term “Big Mo’” was coined in ‘80 by George H.W. Bush, who claimed it after he upset Ronal Reagan in Iowa by two points. Bush, a former U.N. Ambassador and C.I.A. chief, began the race with about as much name recognition as Duncan Hunter has now and campaigned to the left of Reagan, who’d been the clear ’80 front-runner since his narrow loss to Gerald Ford in 1976. Other notable Republicans, including Howard Baker and Bob Dole, had entered the race, but Bush’s Iowa win marginalized them. There was a month-long gap between Iowa and New Hampshire, and it initially looked like Bush would use that time to overtake Reagan. But Reagan reversed his slide at a debate in Nashua when he angrily shouted down the moderator (“I paid for this microphone!”) for cutting him off as he railed against the exclusion of the other candidates. It was largely a scripted moment—Reagan’s campaign had coordinated with the other candidates, who stood behind Reagan and Bush on the stage as Reagan pleaded their case—but it was devastating for Bush, who awkwardly and silently sat in his chair even as Reagan, the crowd urging him on, shook hands with the other candidates as they were ushered off the stage. Reagan went on to win New Hampshire decisively.
President Gerald Ford narrowly bested his sole challenger for the nomination, former California Governor Ronald Reagan, but Iowa was a meaningless exercise. Neither candidate invested in the state, and the “results” reflected the results of polls conducted of about 500 caucus-goers at a few dozen sites around the state. Still, this was the first time Iowa played any role at all in the G.O.P. nominating process.