Success in Iowa is no guarantee of subsequent victories, but candidates and their advisers who dismiss the importance of the caucuses do so at their own peril. The first nominating contest of the presidential election year may give momentum to the victor and those candidates who perform above expectations. The caucuses also have important lessons for the candidates, whose challenge is to discern those lessons and make course corrections in time for the primaries that quickly follow.
In 1972, George McGovern, the relatively unknown Democratic senator from South Dakota, propelled himself into the national spotlight with an impressive second-place finish in Iowa against Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. McGovern finished second again in New Hampshire, but he had inflicted a blow to Muskie and went on to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Despite McGovern's loss to President Nixon in the general election, the early contest in Iowa has been regarded ever since as something of an electoral bellwether.
This year, as President Barack Obama is running as an incumbent with strong support within his party, the Iowa caucuses are focused on the Republican presidential contenders. A look at the historical record of Republican contests in the Hawkeye State suggests that results there should not be ignored. President Gerald Ford defeated Governor Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1976 but lost to Jimmy Carter that November. George H.W. Bush’s upset in Iowa in 1980 led to a reshuffling of Reagan’s presidential campaign staff with the formidable William Casey, a Wall Street financier and former member of the OSS, replacing campaign manager John Sears. As Craig Shirley, a leading historian of Reagan’s presidential bids, has noted, “Only through sheer force of will did Reagan right himself and his campaign [after the Iowa defeat] and turn it around to win the nomination.” Iowa mattered for Ronald Reagan because it forced him to refocus his presidential campaign. The following month, he won nearly 50 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and reclaimed his front-runner status. Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide victory in 1980 and scored a similar victory over Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984.
In the January 1988 Iowa caucuses, George H. W. Bush trailed behind Senator Robert Dole of Kansas and Pat Robertson, a well-known evangelist. But Bush recovered in New Hampshire, won the nomination, and became the 41st president. Dole took Iowa in January 1996 but lost to Governor Bill Clinton in the general election. George W. Bush prevailed in the January 2000 Iowa contest and won the presidency. Governor Mike Huckabee surprised the Republican field, which included Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, Ron Paul, and Rudy Giuliani, with his Iowa win in 2008, but failed to win the Republican nomination. He now hosts a television talk show on FOX.
History shows that Iowa is not the political harbinger that some pundits suggest, yet it offers a unique glimpse into the role of political artistry in US democracy. On January 3, 2012, results of the Iowa caucuses will prompt some candidates to refocus their campaigns and others to build on the momentum they have achieved as they head to New Hampshire. Iowa losers may prevail in later contests, but their success will depend as much on the artistic lessons they draw from Iowa as anything else.