To hear the media, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk, you’d think the Iowa Caucus was the be all end all for the 2016 Presidential campaign. So much fuss is made about it; it makes you wonder just how reliable it all is. Or is more like the groundhog seeing its shadow?
The 2016 presidential election has been described many ways: rambunctious, angry, expensive, anti-establishment. But perhaps the best descriptor is that it has been long — a slow-burn process years in the making. Indeed, fewer than 48 hours after President Barack Obama won his second term in November 2012, Politico was already looking ahead to the 2016 election with a story headlined: “Back to the Future: Clinton vs. Bush?”
After seven Republican debates, four Democratic debates and too many polling stories to count, many people are experiencing a bit of election-fever fatigue. Fortunately, the primary season kicks off Feb. 1, with the Iowa caucuses providing a first round of tangible results.
Campaigns blanket Iowa with town hall appearances and advertisements because of its key status on the voting schedule, but how much does Iowa impact each party’s presidential nomination? Our friends at Inside Gov examined the historical election data to find out.
Since 1976, of the eight Republican caucuses that involved multiple challengers, four of the Iowa winners went on to capture their party’s eventual nomination. In fact, in those 40 years, the only instance when the Republican winner in Iowa went on to win in November was in 2000, when George W. Bush collected the most support in Iowa and then beat former Vice President Al Gore in the general election.
In more recent memory, the Iowa caucuses have delivered wins to two of the more hard-right candidates in the GOP — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012. Although neither earned the nomination, both candidates succeeded in steering the conversation into a more conservative lane. While one could argue about the pros and cons of that shift, it’s undeniable that it has had a significant impact on each of those races and on the Republican Party as a whole.
In looking at the 2016 crop of contenders, for example, one would expect to see Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the top of the heap: His social conservatism, evangelical background and status as a hard-liner make him perfectly poised to do well in Iowa. As of Feb. 1, the day of the Iowa caucuses this cycle, Cruz is in a strong position to come in at a solid second place.
Whether he wins the nomination remains to be seen, but no matter what, Cruz has helped to push the conversation to the right — much like Huckabee and Santorum. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say those two campaigns had no real chance, but they both ultimately came in second place in their respective years. In the process, they necessitated people like Mitt Romney to articulate a conservative viewpoint more ardently, which had a significant impact on the general election.
For Republicans, Iowa has the significant advantage of shifting the conversation within the party.
When it comes to Democrats, Iowa does a better job of anticipating the eventual nominee for the party. Since 1976, eight of the 10 caucuses have featured multiple challengers; of those eight, the winner in Iowa has gone on to be the nominee six times.
And of those six times, the Democratic winner in Iowa has gone on to win the White House twice — former President Jimmy Carter in 1976 and President Barack Obama in 2008.
Obama nabbed his 2008 win with a strong ground game and an anti-war message that resonated with a conflict-weary state — and country. Although Iowa caucus-goers do sit on either end of the political spectrum, the Hawkeye State’s brand of progressivism tends to mirror that of the rest of the nation. The pendulum swings we see among Republicans from Iowa to New Hampshire don’t happen as often with Democrats, as the table above indicates. While this might be a symptom of the Democratic Party more than anything else, in four times in the last 40 years, the candidate who won Iowa also won New Hampshire — and the party’s nomination. When it comes to the Republicans, that has happened twice in 40 years.
In January 2016, a poll revealed that 43 percent of likely voters in the Iowa caucuses would describe themselves as “socialist.” While that word raises red flags for many Americans, a national poll in November 2015 found that 56 percent of Democratic primary voters have a positive view of socialism.
Indeed, in this election, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who identifies as a democratic-socialist, has found favor with Dem voters as he articulates widely held frustration with economic inequality. As of Feb. 1, Sanders is within striking distance of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, down by only 4 percent, according to averages from RealClearPolitics.
The Iowa caucuses take place Feb. 1 at various sites in the state. Voting starts at 7 p.m. Central Time.