By the time the presidential campaign comes to Louisiana on March 5, 16 other states will have voted in primaries and caucuses across the country. For now, enormous attention is riveted on Iowa, the first test of strength for each party’s nomination to be held in less than four weeks.
The Iowa caucus as a landmark campaign event came on the scene in the 1970s. Before that, New Hampshire was the first serious opportunity for actual voters to have a say in presidential elections.
While many observers criticize Iowa for having too much power in the nominating process, in many ways it’s a fairly average state. In terms of size, it has 3.1 million people, making it the 30th-most-populous state in the nation. It ranks 26th in land area, and its median household income, about $48,000, places it 24th of the 50 states.
Politically, Iowa is a swing state in general elections and often mirrors nationwide vote totals. Democrat Barack Obama carried the state twice, winning 54 percent in 2008 and 52 percent in 2012, coming close to his national performance of 53 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Republican George W. Bush carried it by less than one point in his close, but successful, 2004 re-election bid, and Democrat Al Gore, who won the nationwide popular vote in 2000 by less than a point, carried Iowa that year by about the same narrow margin.
Exit polling from the last election indicates Iowa’s party affiliation is split three ways, with Republicans, Democrats and independents each holding about a third of the electorate. That pretty well reflects the nation. But Iowa deviates significantly from America as a whole, however, with its low percentage of minority voters. In 2012, 95 percent of the state’s electorate was white, compared with 72 percent for the national electorate. While Iowa’s voters are 2 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian, the nation’s voters are 13 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.
During the next few weeks, a lot of pundits will ask this question: Does winning in Iowa predestine a nomination victory? The record shows that 43 percent of Republican and 56 percent of Democratic Iowa caucus victors have gone on to win their party’s nominations. What this tells us is that an Iowa triumph may be an important tactical boost for GOP caucus winners, but it is not a reliable predictor of who ultimately captures the nomination. For Democrats, Iowa results have done a little better job at predicting who was eventually nominated, but the record is still too mixed to bet on it.
There have been seven contested Republican presidential contests in Iowa since 1976. Three caucus winners –– Gerald Ford in 1976, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 –– went on to win the nomination. Of the nine contested Democratic caucuses in Iowa since 1972, five winners –– Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 –– have gone on to win the nomination.
Iowa caucus victories are even worse predictors of general election outcomes. Only one contested Republican caucus winner (Bush in 2000) and one contested Democratic caucus winner (Obama in 2008) went on to capture the White House.
Despite this bumpy track record, the state’s caucuses have played critical roles in a number of campaigns and could do so again this year. Ford might have lost the GOP presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1976 had he not beaten the former California governor in Iowa, albeit by a slim 2 points.
Had Obama not carried the state in 2008, he might have never gathered the early momentum he needed to defeat front-runner Hillary Clinton that year.
Each party’s winner in Iowa next month will have much to be happy about –– it’s a great feather in one’s cap, a major opportunity –– but it’s only the beginning, and it’s not even the end of the beginning, as Winston Churchill would say.
The road to Iowa is a rough go. The road from Iowa is even worse.
An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux is a former Louisiana legislator from New Orleans. He currently runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan market research firm that has conducted polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV.