What Matters in Iowa (Part 1–An Overview)

Iowa matters. A lot. The modern primary era began in 1972. Since then, only one nominee in either party has finished lower than third in a contested Iowa caucus. Every nominee who finished third or lower then won New Hampshire. As did almost all second place finishers.

As much as Donald Trump upended the universe in 2016, his early caucus and primary results were extremely normal for a nominee. He finished second, won New Hampshire, and the rest is history.

So anyone expecting to get picked, best finish pretty well in Iowa. And if they don’t win outright, the pressure for New Hampshire ratchets up.

A candidate’s history doesn’t matter. At all. Bernie Sanders currently finds himself third in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls. He’s fourth in the most recent survey. His 2016 virtual tie with Hillary Clinton now only a memory. This doesn’t mean the Hawkeye State won’t feel a Bern again in February. But we shouldn’t expect this just because he connected with voters before.

In 1980, George H.W. Bush launched his national political career with a surprise win over front-runner Ronald Reagan. Though the Gipper won New Hampshire and the presidency, Bush’s Iowa victory helped him get the vice presidency. It made him the favorite for the 1988 caucus.

In which he finished third, with half the support of winner Bob Dole, and trailing TV evangelist Pat Robertson by several points. Past not acting as prelude works both ways. While Dole collected 37.4% of the vote in 1988, he finished with a mere 1.5% on his first attempt in 1980.

This is helpful history for Joe Biden, who collected a rousing 0.9% in 2008. As embarrassing as that was, it should have no bearing on our expectations now. 2008 GOP winner Mike Huckabee, and 2012 victor Rick Santorum, both gave it another try in 2016. They grabbed 2.8%. Combined.

Before you assume Sanders is doomed because he did well last time, it’s not always a rags to riches or riches to rags story. Dole followed his 1988 triumph with another win in 1996. Mitt Romney got almost exactly a quarter of the vote in both 2008 and 2012.

While a candidate’s Iowa history is often misleading, it doesn’t mean the existence of an “Iowa Candidate” is a myth. There are a couple versions of this creature.

The candidate who camps out. Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the first to do this. He began his campaign months before his opponents and spent much of that time in Iowa. Bush acted similarly in 1980 with solid results. As recently as 2012, this worked for Santorum. It doesn’t always work. John Delaney has spent more time in Iowa than any other 2020 candidate.

The local. In 1988, Richard Gephardt of Missouri won the Democratic caucus. He focused on farm and export trade issues. The $48,000 Hyundai (that was a ton of money 30+ years ago) ad became a political classic.

Four years later, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa scared off his opponents, and easily won a barely contested caucus. In that era, midwestern candidates really seemed to do better. The 1988 and 1996 GOP winner, Dole, hailed from Kansas. Homespun Senator Paul Simon of Illinois finished second to Gephardt in 1988.

That stretch of time had repercussions in the next century. Gephardt tried again in 2004, finished fourth, and dropped out. Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota had a disappointing finish in the Iowa Straw Poll, a now discontinued event on the GOP side, in 2011 and dropped out. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin was planning on leveraging a good Iowa finish in 2016. He also quit before reaching the starting line due to bad polling.

The expectations game is crucial. If Biden or Bernie finish fourth, even narrowly, in 2020, it’s a crippling blow. If Julian Castro finishes a strong fourth, it might launch him forward. Gary Hart was a distant second in 1984, with a third of the support front-runner Walter Mondale got. He beat expectations though. Then rocketed to a win in New Hampshire, pushing Mondale all the way to the convention.

George McGovern parlayed a surprising second place finish in 1972 into a surprisingly close second place finish in New Hampshire, and then a semi-shocking Democratic nomination. Of course, when he ran again in 1984, Iowans deserted him, and he finished a distant third.

Howard Dean’s third place finish in 2004 might have sounded fine under normal circumstances. Except a few weeks before the caucus he was leading. His campaign never recovered. Sure, the Dean Scream didn’t help. But the whole reason for the outburst was to counter perception that he underperformed.

2008 front-runner Rudy Giuliani decided to avoid Iowa to keep expectations minimal. He then fell short of that modest floor with 3.5%. He did the same in New Hampshire, and by the time the contest reached his preferred ground in Florida it was too late. This is an excellent example of how difficult it is for candidates to control the expectations game.

Who might control expectations in 2020? Who could exceed them? Who is dangling on the precipice of a fall? Who are our Iowa Candidates? Who might be able to concentrate more on New Hampshire instead? Stick around for the next few days, and you’ll see.

Next up is a piece on predictive traits for Iowa. Followed by one on best practices in Iowa. And if you aren’t completely sick of Iowa by then, a final bit on the timeline candidates will deal with over the next several months.

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