Iowa Caucuses

Friendly Reminder: The Iowa Caucuses Don't Actually Matter That Much

Just ask President Santorum.


Iowa will caucus tonight, and Beltway reporters (myself included) are busy bringing you all the analysis you can handle. But it bears repeating—repeatedly—that actually, what happens in Iowa often stays there.

This is one of the least politically correct things a person can say. Early last year, Republican strategist Liz Mair lost her job for having tweeted, months earlier, disparaging comments about the state.

Nonetheless, it's indisputable that Iowa's track record of choosing the eventual winner of the GOP nomination is poor at best. Of course, the purpose of the cacuses is not to predict who will win; it's for Iowans to make their voices heard and to contribute to the nominating process. But to the extent people try to make sweeping conclusions about who's most likely to come out on top based on what happens today, they're grasping at straws. Let us recap.

In 2012, this was the winner of Iowa's Republican caucuses:

Rick Santorum
Gage Skidmore

And this was the person who actually won the nomination:

Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican convention
Gage Skidmore

In 2008, this was the winner of Iowa's Republican caucuses:

Mike Huckabee
Gage Skidmore

And this was the person who actually won the nomination:

John McCain at the 2008 Republican convention
Craig ONeal

Iowa Republicans also chose the wrong victor in 1988, when Bob Dole beat the sitting vice president there, and in 1980, when George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the Hawkeye State.

Things are, I concede, somewhat better on the Democratic side, where Iowa voters picked Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000. But if you look back as far as 1992, you'll find that future president Bill Clinton received less than 3 percent of the vote in the state that year. And four years before that, eventual nominee Michael Dukakis came in just third.

It's absolutely possible that the people who win both sets of caucuses tonight will go on to be their respective parties' nominees. But if that happens, it will be overwhelmingly a matter of chance. Iowans' votes matter in the sense that they will determine who their state's delegates go to. And doing poorly in an early state like Iowa is often the impetus a struggling candidate needs to to call it quits (and in some cases to throw his or her support behind a rival). But winning Iowa is far from determinative of the final nomination outcome. And that's just a plain fact.

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  1. P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T T-R-U-M-P

    See how easy that is?

    1. Iowa, the irrelevant state.


  3. It only means that the winner will be POTUS if the winner is Hillary or Jeb. Otherwise, it’s meaningless. And for love of all that is good and decent, Reason, why did you have to post Santorum’s disturbing face here? A face we most likely never had to see again if not for you.

  4. Holy crap, Iowa – and by extension, Iowans – sucks balls. But what does matter is money, and I gather you can get some donations off the bragging rights of winning Iowa. It’s possible that eventually that will mean something again.

  5. Looks like Iowa Repub caucusers have a weakness for so-cons.

    For Donald to win, even though he doesn’t have any so-con stank on him, would show how far akilter this election is.

  6. And RON PAUL won most of the delegates.

  7. The republicans are just more intellectually diverse, which of course is once again playing out this cycle. The hipster commie Iowa democrats are the dominant force in their party and have been for some time (minus the black portion of the electorate). Iowa republicans on the other hand are overwhelmingly evangelicans, and the evangelicans aren’t even close to a majority of the party nationally.

    If the republicans had any brains, they would recognize this and change their process.

  8. They may be bad at picking the eventual nominee, but maybe they are good at picking the candidates with the best shot of winning the election? I mean both McCain and Romney lost, maybe if Santorum or Huckabee had been the nominee they would have fared batter? I mean Reagan and Bush in ’80 were really close and in ’88 it could be argued that the only reason Bush won despite not being the Iowa pick is because the Dems also didn’t pick the Iowa pick. Though really this is all just made up gibberish with patterns, but something to think about.

    1. maybe if Santorum or Huckabee had been the nominee they would have fared batter?

      Yeah, I’m sure the evangelical kooks who would have voted for Santorum or Huckabee went with Obama instead.

  9. The Iowa caucuses SHOULDN’T matter that much — bunch of ethanol grifters!

    1. Is that why they tried to get santorum on the GOP ballot?

  10. Regarding criticism of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation role, there seems to be two contradictory arguments.
    1. Iowa has too important of a role for such a low population, demographically unrepresentative state.
    2. Iowa’s role is unimportant because it doesn’t usually determine the presidential nominee.
    Iowa is not determinative of the nominee but simply the start of an arduous process of winnowing the field. Perhaps the fact that Iowa is not demographically representative is a legitimate concern, but being small enough for retail politics does serve a function.

  11. Cruz will upset Trump there, me thinks. Besides, Iowa caucus results aren’t easily predicted…. which is why saying Iowan outcomes don’t represent the future reality is a litte flow-chartish in reasoning; they don’t seem to predict past polling, either, of course.

    So no President Cruz? that wld be fine. No president Trump? also fine.

  12. Who on Earth really cares who becomes POTUS?
    Who will go out and vote for a candidate and profess to perpetuate the ignorant HOAX of American democracy.
    America is ONLY a corporate oligarchy described as democracy after silently overthrowing the United States without firing a shot.
    This corporate JOKE was begun in 1790 after an arbitrary misspelling and rejection of a fundamental natural human right.

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