The Iowa Caucuses: Determining Our Next President Since… Never? (Guest Piece)

The Super Bowl has been a fixture of life in the United States since 1967, when Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. This Sunday, the nation’s public will have another opportunity to lust over their favorite giant men crashing into each other while enjoying foods as quintessentially American as chips and salsa.

Yet, while football may capture the attention of even the most casual sports fan for a short 3 to 4 hours (including commercials and halftime show which, let’s be honest, is about 73% of the reason most of us watch), another sport just as American is already mid-season and will continue until next November.

That sport, and you probably guessed it, is politics. Primary season has literally just kicked off (get the reference to football kick offs?) and the media is covering the results of the Iowa Caucuses just as closely as when they obsessed over Janet’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction”.

JT's face says it all

Justin Timberlake’s face is priceless

Well, the results are in. For the Democrats, Hillary and Bernie are essentially tied at almost 50% of the vote each (sorry, O’Malley). On the Republican side, Donald’s emphatic claim that he “will do so much winning” that we would all get bored has gotten off to a rocky start following a second place finish behind Texan Ted Cruz. And creeping up from behind them is young, oft-absent-senator Marco Rubio with a close third place finish. This race is getting nuts and these results from the Iowa Caucuses are just straight juicy! … Or are they?

Turns out that the Iowa Caucus is about as meaningful as the color of jersey the Broncos and Panthers will don this Sunday — essentially not… at all. Looking back at the last 20 (Republican+Democratic) Iowa Caucuses since in 1976, the winner has gone on to win the nomination a grand total of 4 times. Four! In the last 40 years, Iowa Caucus winners have gone on to be their party’s nominee only four out of twenty times. (I can tell you’re reading this very skeptically so allow me to explain how I arrived at this number).

Let me clarify. The raw number of winners of the Iowa Caucus who have gone on to win their party’s nomination is: 13.

Thirteen?! Hey man, that number is way different than four! What are you playing at?

Before you start questioning my journalistic integrity, let’s look at those 13 winner/nominees. Six of them were incumbents, and four of those six had little to no competition within their party (sorry 1996 Nader fans). From the Republicans we had: Ronald Reagan (1984), George H.W. Bush (1992), and George W. Bush (2004). For the Democrats there was: Jimmy Carter (1980), Bill Clinton (1996), and Barack Obama (2012).

President Barack Obama at a campaign event in Iowa in 2012 (Photo: AP)

Barack Obama at a campaign event in Iowa in 2012 (Photo: AP)

Ok, that still leaves us with seven other Iowa winner/nominees. I know math wasn’t your strongest subject, or even your 4th strongest, but seven is still a different number than four!

All of that is true, except Math was my 5th strongest subject, behind lunch. However, the three others that I exclude from the final number are Gerald Ford (1976), Walter Mondale (1984) and Al Gore (2000). All three of these gentlemen served as vice presidents under the previous Commander in Chief, with Gerald Ford serving as vice president under Richard Nixon AND assuming the presidency after Nixon resigned. Walter Mondale was Jimmy Carter’s VP while Al Gore was Bill Clinton’s — both of them ran against men not nearly as recognizable and won their respective nominations by landslides.

I see. But then who are the remaining four winner/nominees and what makes them so different from the rest?

Let’s start with the two republican nominees, Bob Dole (1996) and George W. Bush (2000). Both of these candidates benefited from previous proximity to the White House. Bob Dole was the vice presidential running mate for Gerald Ford’s failed 1976 bid for the presidency. George W. Bush, a former Texas governor, used the power of the Bush legacy to vault to the forefront of his party in 2000.

George W. Bush at a campaign rally in Florida in 200 (Photo: Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images)

George W. Bush at a campaign rally in Florida in 2000 (Photo: Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images)

On the Democratic side of the political spectrum sit two men who were their party’s choice in Iowa and ended up capturing the nomination. Both are quite different from any other Iowa Caucus winner/nominee in that neither of them had previous experience running for the presidency, nor had presidential lineage: John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Ok, sorry. What exactly is your original argument, again?

My point ladies and gents, is that while nearly every media outlet is in a tizzy, frantically discussing the significance of the Iowa Caucus and what it might mean moving forward, you now know that the results are actually quite the opposite: virtually meaningless.

In 2008, John McCain (the future Republican presidential nominee) tied for 3rd place in Iowa with the political juggernaut known as Fred Thompson. In 1992, on his way to residing in the White House, Bill Clinton achieved a smashing 4th place finish, collecting just 3% of the Caucus vote. To give some context, the career politician “Uncommited” won 12% of the Democratic vote in Iowa that year. (Basically, Iowans in 1992 thought a blank piece of paper was a better presidential option than Bill Clinton — let that sink in for a second.)

So you’re saying none of it has meaning?

Well that’s a tricky question, but yes the answer is no. Certainly there are experts (who are vastly more experienced on such matters than yours truly) that say Marco Rubio’s third place finish makes him the “big winner” in Iowa and gives him all the momentum moving into the New Hampshire primary. Yet one can just look at another third place finisher who many, at the time, thought was surging ahead following the Iowa Caucus:

So this weekend when you are watching Cam “Dab on ‘em” in the end zone of Levi Stadium in California, just remember: The Iowa Caucus results have just as much meaning in determining each party’s presidential nominee as which elbow Mr. Newton throws his head into. And if you don’t understand that reference…

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