Alternate title: Why Do We Give a S*** About Two States With Populations Comparable to Dallas and Chicago?

It’s very easy to look at the countless would-be presidential candidates crisscrossing Iowa and New Hampshire a year, 18 months, or even 2 years before the presidential election, and think that (a) they clearly need to find a hobby, and (b) that the journalists and media personalities covering these antics are desperate to have something to talk about.

Why do journalists and pollsters and the trashy people like me that delight in reading political tea leaves and chicken entrails to divine the electoral future care so much about the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary? Well…

Something that’s important to understand is that the primaries are relatively recent innovations devised to bridge the gap between public and party.

Primaries in the major American political partiesĀ  didn’t really have any relevance until the early 20th century. And even then, they were a means for party operatives in certain states to indicate their preferred candidates prior to the National Convention, where party bosses would hash it out and call in favors (and all sorts of more unseemly leverage) to finally achieve a majority consensus for selecting a candidate.

Early primaries were non-binding. They were as meaningful in the long run as a round of marry/f***/kill conducted with your friends.

But then 1968 happened. Lyndon Johnson, facing an unexpectedly strong primary challenge by Senator Eugene McCarthy, announced on March 31, 1968 that he would not run for a second (full) term. With seven months and change until the general election, the Democratic Party didn’t have a candidate for president.

In the month prior to Johnson’s announcement, McCarthy had won 42% of vote in the New Hampshire primary, which led Robert Kennedy to renounce his support for Johnson and announce his own candidacy. Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who announced his candidacy in late April and was viewed as a stand-in for Johnson, was very late to the game.

By that time, McCarthy had won the second and third primaries, and days later won a fourth. Of the next four, Kennedy won three, with the fourth being won by another candidate, Stephen Young.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination the day of his victory in California, Humphrey never won a single primary race.

But… Only 14 states had primaries. The vast majority of states had delegates that could vote for whoever they wanted. Humphrey wined and dined the Democratic Party bosses in these states, and thus secured the nomination, despite never winning more than 20% of the vote in a state primary.

He then went on to get mulched by Nixon in the general election, carrying only 13 states and D.C.

Subsequently, this led the Democratic Party to reform its nomination process and emulate some of the steps taken by the Republican Party, which had had a slightly more robust primary process by that point (though it was also still in a primitive state where party bosses had a lot of sway).

As a result of these changes, 1972 is considered to be the birth year of the modern political primary. But it shouldn’t be presumed that primaries quickly grew to look like what we have now. Even when Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992, only about forty states had primaries or caucuses.

Okay, now the parties actually care to some degree about what the little people have to say. But why are the folks in Iowa and New Hampshire of all places so important?

The results of the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire are highly predictive of the eventual winner, going back as far as 1972.

While the order in which the 50 states (and D.C.) participate in the primary varies year to year, generally the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are among the very earliest contests in the Democratic and Republican primary season.

And despite how small these states (and the number of delegates they award) are, and how white bread their populations are, the results of these two contests are quite predictive of who ends up winning.

To illustrate this, I took a look at the results of every Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary since 1972 in which there were at least five candidates. I discarded the 2008 and 2000 Democratic primaries because these were more or less head to head races. I also ignored years in which a party was the incumbent party (the Democrats in 2012, etc.).

What I looked at, specifically, was the performance of the eventual nominee in these two races. Did winners ever do a slow burn, failing to make an impact early on, only to pick up steam and catch up later on?

Well. No. Take a look.

(There were two cases in which a candidate tied another for first place in terms of the percentage of the vote won, but won fewer delegate, or vice versa. In these instances, “D” indicates how the candidate placed with regard to number of delegates won, while “%” indicates their rank by percentage of the vote won.)

CandidateYearIowaNew Hampshire
McCain20083rd (Tied)1st
GW Bush20001st2nd
B Clinton19923rd1st (Tied D) / 2nd (%)
GHW Bush19881st1st

The results are pretty striking. In thirteen primaries, with only one exception, the eventual nominee has never not placed first (in terms of delegates and/or raw vote count) in at least one of the two contests. George McGovern was the sole exception, back in 1972 in what was still such an unrefined primary process that the winner tied with “uncommitted” for first. And McGovern at least managed to place second in both. Bill Clinton is the only other marginal case, as he had to scrape by with a tie for first in terms of delegates in New Hampshire.

And in only three out of thirteen cases has the eventual nominee placed third in one of those two races. None of them has placed fourth or worse.

Jeb Bush Campaigning in Iowa Ahead of the 2016 Primary

Jeb Bush’s campaign kicked off in 2014, and he was one of the most financially well-heeled Republican candidates in the primary. His campaign had more than $35 million in direct funding, and his Right to Rise PAC provided another $103 million in backing. However, two 4th place finishes in Iowa and N.H. quickly eroded support. Only 11 days after the N.H. primary, his campaign was dead. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0)

If we take these observations as hard and fast rules for interpreting future results and quickly identifying the likely nominee (sooner or later someone will be the exception, of course), what’s the takeaway?

  1. In Iowa, which typically kicks things off, you can write off anyone who places fourth or worse.
  2. If two candidates split the two races, one of the two will be the nominee, but it’ll take a while to figure out which one. Unless one of them placed fourth or worse in the race they didn’t win, because then you can write that one off.
  3. If someone wins both races, they’re a lock to win.

Yes, it’s depressing in a way. We like to see comebacks. To see the underdog squeak it out. But campaigns cost a ton of money and require the help of thousands of volunteers. People move quickly to cut their losses and reallocate resources to candidates with a better shot. Politics is merciless.