DES MOINES — Presidential candidates spend months or even years in Iowa during election season, hoping to secure that coveted top spot on caucus night. But while a win in Iowa can spring candidates into the spotlight, the caucuses don’t necessarily forecast the rest of the race.
Since the caucuses began in 1972, there have been 18 caucus winners between the two parties: 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans. More than half of those winners went on to secure their party’s nomination in that cycle, but only three would go on to be elected president.
The list includes two incumbents who faced significant primary challenges in Iowa. Incumbent President Gerald Ford, a Republican, was challenged by former California governor Ronald Reagan in 1976. Though Ford narrowly won the Iowa caucus and secured the Republican nomination, he lost the presidency to Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
Carter faced a similar situation four years later as he ran for a second term. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged Carter in Iowa. Carter won the caucus and the Democratic nomination, but went on to lose lose the general election to Reagan.
Incumbent presidents who ran unopposed or faced negligible competition Iowa are excluded from the data.
Two men are counted twice in the data: Carter and former Kansas U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who each won two opposed Iowa caucuses. Dole was not the Republican nominee in 1988 but did clinch the nomination his second time around, in 1996. He would go on to lose the general election to the Democratic incumbent, President Bill Clinton.
Iowa caucus winners who became president varies by party
Iowa Democratic caucus winners have more often become their party’s nominee and the winner of the presidential election than the winners of Iowa’s Republican caucuses.
Seven of 10 Democrats who won their Iowa caucus went on to become the Democratic nominee in the general election. Meanwhile, just 3 of 8 Iowa Republican caucus winners would become the party’s nominee a few months later.
The Iowa Democratic caucuses over the last 20 years have been especially accurate at choosing the nominee: Every caucus winner since 2000, from Vice President Al Gore to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has gone on to become the party’s general election nominee.
The opposite is true for Iowa Republicans: No Iowa Republican caucus winner has gone on to represent the party in a general election since Texas governor George W. Bush, in 2000.
When it comes to selecting the winner of the presidential election, Democratic caucuses maintain an edge over Republicans. Since 1972, two Democrats who placed first on caucus night were elected president that November: Carter did it in 1976, then former U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.
Only one Republican, George W. Bush, won an opposed Iowa caucus, secured his party’s nomination and went on to become president.
So what does it all mean for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates?
As candidates scramble to charm Iowans and the caucuses creep ever-closer, it is clear that the winner of the Iowa caucus is most often not the person who eventually sits in the Oval Office.
Still, Democratic caucuses in the last two decades have been eerily good at predicting the nominee. Expect to see candidates pouring time and money into the state and hoping they can continue that trend.
More results: Dig deeper into Iowa Caucus history and results, including recent county-level results.
Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 515-284-8041. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.