The Iowa Democratic caucuses remain ensnared in drama and controversy surrounding technical challenges, misreported data and delays with determining a winner. Days after the country’s first presidential nominating contest, the final results in the Democratic race have not yet been announced. One-hundred percent of the precincts have reported results, but on Thursday, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez called on party officials in Iowa to recanvass, or double-check, the numbers. It is not clear how long that process could take.
So far, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. are in first and second place with 26.2 percent and 26.1 percent of state delegate equivalents, respectively. The results are not what former Vice President Joe Biden, the early frontrunner in the crowded Democratic field, expected. Biden is currently in fourth place with 15.8 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is in third, with 18 percent.
The ongoing confusion over the Iowa results has raised the stakes for the candidates ahead of the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, as they battle each other to convince voters they’re best positioned to beat President Donald Trump in November.
A strong showing by Buttigieg and Sanders in New Hampshire would give them significant momentum, though both are still struggling with key voting blocs: Buttigieg with minority voters, and Sanders with moderates who find him too progressive. (Both candidates and the rest of the field will face a big test later this month in Nevada and South Carolina, two states with large minority populations.)
But even if either one wins Iowa or New Hampshire, they won’t necessarily be certain to capture the nomination. As history shows, it’s an open question how much influence the first two nominating contests really have.
Are presidents usually caucus winners?
Ultimately, winning the Iowa caucuses still means winning just one early battle, and may not directly translate to winning the general election. Only three of the seven U.S. presidents since 1976 won their Iowa caucuses: Democrats Jimmy Carter in 1976, Barack Obama in 2008, and Republican George W. Bush in 2000.
Iowa caucus losers who went on to win the White House are Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Trump in 2016.
Expanding the data to include the New Hampshire primary results shows a clearer correlation between early-state winners and the general election results. Six of the seven presidents elected since 1976 won the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. (The Iowa caucuses became the first nominating contest in 1972 and became a fixture of modern politics after Jimmy Carter’s strategy of focusing on the 1976 caucuses and early primaries helped him win the nomination.)
Given this past, some historians and strategists cautioned that the caucus results aren’t consistently predictive of the final general election outcome.
The Iowa caucuses can help “clarify” the top-tier candidates for a party, but it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions beyond that, said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
And there is a difference between the success of Republican and Democratic winners of the Iowa caucuses.
Between 1976 and 2016, there have been nine Democratic Iowa caucus winners — seven of which have gone on to secure the party’s nomination. In that same time frame, there have been eight Republican Iowa caucus winners — three of which have gone on to secure their party’s nomination. Those numbers do not reflect the years in which there were unchallenged incumbents.
The contrast between past Republican and Democratic caucus winners suggests differences in each party’s voter base, said Matthew Dallek, a political historian at The George Washington University.
“On the Republican side, the Iowa caucuses [tend] to be more referendums on who is the most socially conservative candidate,” Dallek said. “That’s not necessarily a reflection of the broader Republican coalition, at least in modern history. There is a bit of a disconnect between the Republican Iowa electorate and the rest of the Republican electorate.”
Is it possible to become a party nominee without winning Iowa or New Hampshire?
On the Democratic side, one notable exception to the rule that the eventual nominee must win Iowa or New Hampshire is Bill Clinton. Clinton’s 1992 comeback suggests it is possible that a 2020 Democrat who doesn’t win either of the first two contests could still end up as the party’s nominee.
That year, then-Arkansas governor Clinton lost Iowa and New Hampshire, but still won the Democatic nomination and went on to beat President George H.W. Bush in the general election.
The Iowa Democratic caucuses that year were dominated by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who won with 76.5 percent of the vote. Clinton was hurt by allegations he was involved in a 12-year affair. But the scandal also prevented other Democratic candidates from breaking through the news cycle and gaining momentum, said Simon Rosenberg, a strategist who worked on the 1992 Clinton campaign.
Ultimately, Clinton managed to finish second in New Hampshire. In his New Hampshire speech on primary night, Clinton famously said that “New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid,” a narrative that stuck with him through the general election.
Clinton’s victory was a reminder that public expectations can help shape primary success. Outperforming expectations can give candidates a major boost — Buttigieg is a case in point in 2020. Whether he ends up winning the Iowa caucuses outright or finishing a close second, the former mayor is in much stronger shape heading into New Hampshire than many predicted.
“Mayor Pete’s showing in Iowa was impressive, no matter how you look at it,” Rosenberg said. “Now he heads to New Hampshire in a very competitive position in a wide open race.”