Despite the Myth, Iowa Caucus Winners Do Get Nominated

The immediate aftermath of the Iowa caucus win by Ted Cruz is a series of excuses by Donald Trump and his supporters. Among the most popular such excuses is the repeated declaration that the Iowa caucuses are not truly significant, that the winner in Iowa does not go on to win the GOP nomination. The problem with this declaration is that it is – in fact – a deeply inaccurate myth.

If we examine the results of the past ten elections – a nice, round number going back to 1976, the first year when the post-1968 primary reforms went into widespread effect – we see a very different picture:

  • In 1976, 1996 and 2000, the winners of the GOP caucuses in Iowa went on to win the nomination.
  • In 1980, 1988 and 2008, the winners of the GOP caucuses in Iowa did not end up winning the nomination.
  • In 2012, Rick Santorum won the popular vote by a razor thin margin of 34 votes – a statistical tie with second place winner Mitt Romney – but ended up with zero delegates. Mitt Romney ended up walking away with five delegates. Distant third place finisher Ron Paul took 22 delegates. The definition of “winner” in 2012 is questionable. Mitt Romney was the highest vote getter to also garner delegates. He ended up being the nominee. 2012 is far too easily argued in a number of ways to be indicative of a trend. In fact, the confusion in 2012 caused the rules in Iowa to be changed significantly, beginning with this year’s caucus.
  • In 1984, 1992 and 2004, the incumbent President ran unopposed and there was no contest.

Mathematically – if we discount 2012, when three different people could be claimed to be actual winners – Iowa winners in contested caucuses end up with the nomination 50% of the time and end up losing the nomination 50% of the time.

There are more interesting trends to examine in Iowa, as well. For example, in the six contested Iowa caucuses with clear winners out of the last ten, the second place winner has only gone on to win the nomination once. That individual was Ronald Reagan in 1980. In 1988, Bush had barely half the votes Bob Dole did, coming in third. In 2008, fourth place finisher John McCain had just over a third as many votes as winner Mike Huckabee did. Both Bush and McCain went on to be nominated. In other words, the winner of Iowa is almost never surpassed by a close competitor. If he or she loses, it is to a third or fourth place opponent. If history is any indicator, Marco Rubio is far more likely to overcome Cruz and be the nominee than Trump is.

In politics, there is a tendency to cite those factors which are favorable to one’s preferred candidate while ignoring those which are unfavorable. That tendency is amplified by Donald Trump and his supporters to a level rarely seen in politics previously. However, doing so does nothing to alter reality. The study of past electoral trends by political scientists is well founded. History tends to repeat itself. While no indicator is dispositively prophetic, there is every reason to use historical data to project the likelihood of future events based on what has taken place in the past. To ignore such indicators is to risk gravely miscalculating the directions of specific campaigns. It appears that the Trump campaign is falling into that trap now by picking and choosing which indicators to recognize. That is a dangerous error.