1972: This was the first year in which Iowa and New Hampshire both play meaningful roles in the nominating contest. George McGovern, who authored the new nominating procedures that went into effect in ’72 gains credibility in Iowa, even though he finishes second to Ed Muskie. His second place finish to Muskie in New Hampshire is also deemed a victory by the press—and a repudiation of Muskie, a Senator from neighboring Maine who had been the overwhelming national front-runner. Muskie collapses and McGovern gobbles up subsequent primaries, surviving charges from George Wallace (who is shot before his Maryland victory) and Hubert Humphrey to secure the nomination.
2000: Very similar to the ’84 Democratic race. Like Walter Mondale, George W. Bush enters as the clear national front-runner and posts a sizable win in Iowa—as expected. But then he is thumped in New Hampshire by John McCain, who touts a reform message and attracts hordes of independent voters. Bush arrests McCain’s momentum with an ugly South Carolina win, restoring his standing as the safe pick for establishment Republicans. McCain win
s the next contest—in Michigan—but only with the help of independent and Democratic voters, a fact that Bush uses to further his case that McCain is not a loyal Republican, but rather a tool of the party’s opponents. In the next wave of contests (in more conservative states, and in closed primary states) Bush wins going away.
1996: Iowa introduces Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander (second and third place in the caucuses) as front-runner Bob Dole’s chief rivals for the nomination, and Buchanan follows up with a shocking New Hampshire win. Dole finishes second, with Alexander just behind him in third. But Alexander is squeezed from the race, with the press focusing exclusively on a Dole-Buchanan race. Dole rallies the panicked G.O.P. establishment in South Carolina and fends off Buchanan, signaling the demise of any realistic Buchanan nomination scenario. Billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who entered the race late and downplayed Iowa and New Hampshire, scores a surprise win in Delaware and emerges as a late alternative to Dole, but Dole—with the inevitability he recovers in South Carolina—crushes him on Super Tuesday.
1992: Iowa is not contested, but Pat Buchanan mounts a challenge to President George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire. He announces his candidacy 9 weeks before the primary but rails against Bush’s reneged “no new taxes” pledge and his seeming indifference to the toll a recession has taken on the state and country. Buchanan scores a stunning 37 percent—initial returns have him running in the 40’s—to Bush’s 53. Buchanan presses on but his is regarded as a protest candidacy and not a serious bid for the nomination. He is handily beaten in subsequent states—but the damage to Bush reverberates in the general election.
1988: Like Hillary Clinton this year, George H.W. Bush enters as the overwhelming national front-runner only to finish a stunning third place in Iowa—behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, in his case. Bush’s lead in New Hampshire, 20 points before the caucuses, evaporates in four days, but Bush goes negative and Dole stumbles in a debate, allowing Bush to pull out a 38-29 percent win on primary night. Dole’s plight worsens when, in a post-primary interview on NBC, he snarls that Bush should “stop lying” about his record. Bush, his momentum recovered and his campaign backed by the state’s formidable G.O.P. establishment, routs Dole (and Robertson) in South Carolina and cruises to the nomination. With a New Hampshire win, Dole might have rallied much of the party establishment to his side and thwarted Bush in the South. This may be why Bush begins his general election victory speech in November 1988 with the words, “Thank you, New Hampshire.”
1984: No primaries.
1980: Ronald Reagan is the clear national front-runner who trips up in Iowa, falling to George H.W. Bush by three points. Bush emerges as Reagan’s chief rival, but Reagan rights his ship in New Hampshire, trouncing Bush and re-establishing his national footing. After a string of Reagan wins, Bush engineers an upset win in Pennsylvania, but it fails to alter the momentum and Reagan runs the table.