Can Hillary or Mitt Survive Another Loss? (History Says No)

Not every presidential nominee in the modern era has won both Iowa and New Hampshire. But they have all received a boost from at least one of them.

And therein lies Hillary Clinton’s predicament: If she loses to Barack Obama on Tuesday night, she will have suffered back-to-back defeats in the lead-off states, both in raw numbers and in terms of media perception. Never, in either party, has a candidate endured such a fate and gone on to claim the nomination. And never has a candidate won both events—as Obama is poised to do—and been denied the nomination.

The same history applies to the Republican side, underscoring the do-or-die stakes of the John McCain-Mitt Romney contest in New Hampshire: the loser will have suffered clear losses in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Only one of them figures to emerge with the viability to challenge Mike Huckabee, Iowa’s winner. And history doesn’t smile at all on the waiting-game strategy being employed by both Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson.

Here is a look at how the Iowa/New Hampshire one-two punch has affected past nominating contests for both parties:


2004: John Kerry wins undisputed victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and emerges as the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. The party, eager to unite for a fall race against George W. Bush, quickly coalesces around him. This mood also makes it suicidal for his opponents to run negative campaign against him. Meanwhile, Howard Dean, who had been the front-runner before Iowa, watches his support evaporate with his back-to-back setbacks in the first two states. Three of Kerry’s foes—Dean, John Edwards and Wesley Clark—stick around for a few weeks, mainly to be in position if Kerry stumbles. He doesn’t, and the nomination is his by the middle of March.

2000: Al Gore follows up a 28-point win over Bill Bradley in Iowa with a narrow 4-point escape job in New Hampshire, aided by independent voters (who favored Bradley) lopsidedly opting to participate in the G.O.P. primary. A change of a few points would have made Bradley a contender for the nomination, but instead the twin defeats devastate his campaign. Casual supporters jump ship, the news media loses interest and Bradley is flushed from the race in the next wave of contests.

1996: No primaries

1992: Iowa is not contested, making New Hampshire the first major event. Bill Clinton loses the state to Paul Tsongas but declares a moral victory in his concession speech, calling himself “the comeback kid.” The media buys it and treats Clinton like a winner. Two weeks later, in the next big test for the candidates, Clinton scores a lopsided win in Georgia and loses narrowly in Maryland (to Tsongas) and Colorado (to Jerry Brown), leading the media to dub him the day’s overall winner. Decisive Clinton victories on Super Tuesday the following week all but cement the nomination.

1988: Michael Dukakis finishes third in Iowa but is portrayed as a winner by the media, since his 22 percent showing is considered strong for a Northeast governor running against two candidates from bordering states (Richard Gephardt and Paul Simon). Dukakis then wins New Hampshire by nearly 20 points over Gephardt and Simon, establishing him as the clear national front-runner. With his momentum, Dukakis is then able to pull off his “four corners” strategy on Super Tuesday (the next major test), winning Maryland, Florida, Texas and Washington on the same day. Jesse Jackson and Al Gore (who largely skipped Iowa and New Hampshire) each win several southern states on Super Tuesday, but Dukakis, by demonstrating appeal in multiple regions of the country, is seen as gaining the most from the day. After a surprise loss to Jackson in Michigan the following weekend, Dukakis overwhelms his foes in Wisconsin and New York, sealing the nomination.

1984: Walter Mondale posts a three-to-one win in Iowa over Gary Hart, but the result nonetheless certifies Hart as the main alternative to Mondale, a role no one had yet assumed. Hart rockets to a 13-point triumph in New Hampshire and the press immediately declares him the national front-runner—even though Mondale had led his nearest rival by 49 points in a national poll just weeks before New Hampshire. Hart quickly reels off a series of small caucus and primary wins, setting the stage for Super Tuesday (then a much smaller affair than now) and his chance to finish off Mondale. But the former V.P. turns the tables on Hart in a debate in Atlanta, suggesting (sort of as Hillary now is about Obama) that his opponent is all talk and no action. “Where’s the beef?” Mondale asks, quoting the then-popular Wendy’s advertising slogan in reference to Hart’s “new ideas” platform. Mondale scores life-saving wins in Georgia and Alabama and the media declares Super Tuesday a draw. That puts Mondale back in the game, and his machine slowly wears Hart down over the next few months (the nominating process was evenly spread out and lasted through early June back then).

1980: There is something of a parallel between the talk now coming from Hillary’s campaign—downplaying a potential New Hampshire loss and portraying the nomination race as a long marathon—and the ’80 campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. Carter, the incumbent president, wins clear victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Kennedy, who was more well-known and better-funded than most challenger candidates, refuses to fold and insists he’ll compete through the convention. The race ends up lasting for several months, with Kennedy scoring enough wins at critical times to keep his campaign alive. But Carter, thanks to his early momentum and establishment backing, always has the upper hand, and Kennedy is always playing catch-up. On June 3, the final day of voting, Carter pushes past the magic delegate number with a win in Ohio. Had Kennedy won in New Hampshire, where he’d invested heavily, expectations might have shifted in the subsequent states.

1976: Jimmy Carter wins Iowa (which he alone contests), providing him with enough momentum to win New Hampshire by 5 points over Mo Udall (a significant setback for Udall). This establishes Carter as a credible alternative to George Wallace in the South, and Carter eliminates Wallace with a victory in Florida. Carter then knocks Scoop Jackson out in Pennsylvania and Udall in Wisconsin. Frank Church and Jerry Brown then enter the race and run to Carter’s left in the May and June primaries, but their late success is not enough to deny Carter a first ballot nomination. Carter’s path to victory is significant because it announces the predominance of Iowa and New Hampshire in a nominating process that is increasingly being decided by primaries and caucuses—and not at party conventions.

Can Hillary or Mitt Survive Another Loss? (History Says No)