Who wins in the Iowa Caucuses? Not always the eventual nominee

NCC Staff

As the presidential primary season unofficially kicks off on February 1, here’s a quick look at which candidates have used Iowa as a springboard (Jimmy Carter) or as a swan song (Howard Dean).


2008 Democratic Caucus. Wikicommons: Citizensharp

Technically, the Iowa Caucus isn’t a primary, but it is the start of a collaborative process within the state’s Republican and Democratic parties to pick nominees. Groups of party members pick delegates to conventions within the state that eventually select delegates sent to the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Each party uses different rules for their caucus meetings, but it was the Democratic Party back in 1972 that was responsible for the caucus occurring before the New Hampshire primary. Democratic leaders wanted to avoid the delegate-selection chaos of the 1968 convention in Detroit. In a move to make the delegate selection process more transparent, a 120-day period was used prior to the national convention. That pushed the Iowa Caucus back to late January for the Democrats. The Republicans followed suit with a similar Iowa process in 1976.

Since then, the Democratic winner has usually fared better than the Republican favorite in getting the final nomination at the national convention. (Iowa accounts for about 1 percent of the delegate count.)

Tom Harkin was the last Democratic caucus winner, in 1992, who didn’t secure his party’s nomination that summer. The last two GOP winners, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, didn’t get their party’s nomination for the general election. In contested caucuses since 1972, the Democratic winner got the national nomination in six out of nine instances; for the GOP, the Iowa winner was the national nominee in just three out of seven contested caucuses.

Here’s a quick look back at the winners and losers since 1972:

1972 – The winner is “uncommitted.” It wasn’t a promising sign for the Democrats that Uncommitted, at 35.8%, beat Edmund Muskie at 35.5%. The eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern, was third.

1976 – Carter popular among the Dems, Ford among the Republicans. Jimmy Carter made his big move as the candidate with the most votes and he was more than 14 points ahead of Birch Bayh. President Ford topped Ronald Reagan in a straw poll vote.

1980 – George H.W. Bush tops Reagan. Yes, Reagan lost to Bush by two percentage points, while President Carter easily beat Ted Kennedy.

1984 – Mondale easily wins. The GOP didn’t see any opposition to Reagan, while former Vice President Walter Mondale trounced Gary Hart and McGovern.

1988 – Neither Iowa winner was the party nominee. Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole took the Iowa caucuses by convincing margins. Bush and Michael Dukakis both finished third in Iowa but first in the national nomination process.

1992 – Harkin in a landslide. Bush ran unopposed, while Iowa Senator Tom Harkin took 76% of the vote. Harkin stumbled in New Hampshire and then threw his support to Bill Clinton.

1996 – Dole gains momentum. Dole defeated Pat Buchanan in a close contest, while Clinton ran unopposed. The former Vice President would become the GOP nominee against Clinton in the fall.

2000 – Bush 43 and Gore dominate. Vice President Gore easily defeated his top rival, Bill Bradley, while George W. Bush gained an important win against Steve Forbes.

2004 – The Howard Dean Caucus. John Kerry gained a critical win over John Edwards in Iowa, but the Democratic caucus is best remembered for Dean’s “Scream” concession speech. President Bush ran unopposed.

2008 – Obama becomes a factor. Illinois U.S. Senator Barack Obama took the Democratic caucus with Hillary Clinton in third place. The Republicans selected Mike Huckabee by 9 points over Mitt Romney; John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, was fourth.

2012 – A tight three-way GOP race. Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul were bunched closely in the final voting results. (Romney was at first believed to have finished in first place.) Donald Trump also received five write-in votes. President Obama ran unopposed for the Democrats.

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