How Good Are the Iowa Caucuses at Picking Presidential Nominees? Pretty Good

But a win doesn’t always lead anywhere — right, Rick Santorum?

If you hate the results of tonight’s Iowa caucuses, don’t worry: The winners may have a decent chance of winning their parties’ nominations, but they’re not a lock.

In the last 40 years of Iowa caucusing — going back to 1976 — the winners on the Democratic side have gone on to win their party’s nomination seven or eight times, depending on how you count. The Republican winners have gone on to win the nomination six or seven times — again, it depends on how you count.

Why the fudging? Well. In 1976, Jimmy Carter got the most votes of any candidate — but the number of uncommitted voters was higher than the number of voters who chose him.

And in 2012, the Republican side saw Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney finish in a near-tie. Romney went on to get the nomination. Santorum got the consolation prize of getting to talk on news shows today about his moment of glory.

Of course, there were many years when the winner of the Iowa caucus wasn’t so hard to predict, because he had the advantage of being president, running for re-election. A sitting Republican president won the Iowa caucuses in 1984 (Ronald Reagan), ’92 (George H.W. Bush), and 2004 (George W. Bush.) On the Democratic side, a sitting president won in ’80 (Carter), ’96 (Clinton), and ’12 (Obama).

How often does one of the Iowa winners go on to become president? It happened in 1976, kind of (remember Carter came in behind “uncommitted”), in ’84 (when Iowa winner Reagan was re-elected) and in every election since ’96. Clinton won that year, the second Bush won in 2000 and 2004, and Obama won in 2008 and 2012.

So basically, in every election the last 20 years, an Iowa winner also won the general election.

But hey, if you don’t like the latest Iowa results, you can look for hope in the year 1988, when Bob Dole won Iowa but Bush the elder got the Republican nomination. Dick Gephardt won on the Democratic side, but Michael Dukakis won the party’s eventual bid — only to lose to Bush.

Here are the winners of the last 10 Iowa caucuses, on both sides (for simplicity’s sake, we’re counting incumbents running unopposed as wins, since incumbents seen as vulnerable can always face challenges — like Ford did from Reagan in 1976):


2012: Barack Obama (incumbent who ran unopposed and beat Mitt Romney in the general election)

2008: Barack Obama (who beat John McCain in the general election)

2004: John Kerry (who won the nomination and lost to incumbent George W. Bush in the general election)

2000: Al Gore (who won the nomination and lost to George W. Bush in the general election)

1996: Bill Clinton (incumbent who ran unopposed and beat Bob Dole in the general election)

1992: Tom Harkin (who lost the nomination to Bill Clinton, who beat incumbent George H.W. Bush in the general election)

1988: Dick Gephardt (who lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis, who lost the general election to George H.W. Bush)

1984: Walter Mondale (who won the nomination but lost the general election to incumbent Ronald Reagan)

1980: Jimmy Carter (incumbent who ran unopposed but lost the general election to Ronald Reagan)

1976: Jimmy Carter, kind of (he had fewer votes than “uncommitted,” but won the nomination and beat incumbent Gerald Ford in the general election).


2012: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney (Romney won the nomination but lost the general election to incumbent Barack Obama)

2008: Mike Huckabee (who lost the nomination to John McCain, who tied for third in Iowa and lost the general election to Barack Obama)

2004: George W. Bush (incumbent who ran unopposed and beat John Kerry in the general election)

2000: George W. Bush (who won the nomination and general election against Al Gore)

1996: Bob Dole (who won the nomination, but lost the general election to incumbent Bill Clinton)

1992: George H.W. Bush (incumbent who ran unopposed but lost the general election to Bill Clinton)

1988: Bob Dole (who lost the nomination to George H.W. Bush, who came in third in Iowa but beat Michael Dukakis in the general election)

1984: Ronald Reagan (incumbent who ran unopposed and beat Walter Mondale in the general election)

1980: George H.W. Bush (who lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, who won the general election against incumbent Jimmy Carter)

1976: Gerald Ford (incumbent who won the nomination but lost the general election to Jimmy Carter)