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How good of a bellwether are the Iowa caucuses?

Past GOP Iowa caucus winners include Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. None of them would win the party's nomination.
How good of a bellwether are the Iowa caucuses?
Posted at 12:55 PM, Jan 11, 2024

Republicans will hold their first nominating contest of the 2024 presidential election cycle Monday in Iowa. 

Winning the Iowa caucuses would give candidates a head start toward securing the presidential nomination. But recent history, especially for Republicans, shows winning in Iowa might not be so essential. 

For instance, in the last three contested GOP elections, the winner of the Iowa caucuses did not go on to win the nomination. 

Unlike a normal primary, voting in caucuses is more opaque. Although winning delegates is important, gaining momentum is even more essential heading into the heart of primary season. 

In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz edged Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio for the win in Iowa. That was despite most polling showing Trump in the lead in the days leading up to the caucuses. Although Cruz kept his campaign active into May, more than three months after the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Trump used other early-state wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to help secure the nomination. 

In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum was declared the winner in Iowa, barely defeating eventual nominee former Gov. Mitt Romney. 

Santorum went on to win eight more states, but decided to suspend his campaign in May as it became clear Romney would have enough delegates to win the nomination. 

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Sen. John McCain had a poor showing in Iowa in 2008, coming in fourth behind former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson. McCain opted to put much of his focus on New Hampshire, and the effort paid off as he defeated Romney to win the state. 

McCain slowly attained front-runner status in the early primaries and a series of wins in larger states, most notably California, helped him secure the nomination. Romney dropped out about a month after Iowa, and Huckabee suspended his campaign two months after Iowa. 

2000 marks the last time the winner of a contested Iowa caucuses went on to win the nomination. That year, Gov. George W. Bush easily won in Iowa. McCain opted to focus his campaign on New Hampshire, which helped him defeat Bush in the state a week later. 

But this early momentum in Iowa clearly helped Bush, who six weeks later had a successful Super Tuesday, which knocked McCain out of the race.

The Iowa caucuses have only been a slight bellwether for Democrats. Democrats have also decided after 2020 that the Iowa caucuses would no longer be at the beginning of the nominating process, as the party has pushed to make more diverse states go first.

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In 2020, eventual nominee Joe Biden struggled with a fourth-place finish, falling behind former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Biden struggled in early contests, but his campaign quickly gained momentum after winning the fourth nominating contest of the season in South Carolina. 

The 2016 Iowa caucuses for Democrats were incredibly tight, with Sen. Hillary Clinton narrowly defeating Sanders. Clinton maintained a slight edge in delegates late into the nominating process, but Sanders opted not to drop out of the race until the Democratic National Convention. 

The 2008 Iowa caucuses were seen as key toward launching Sen. Barack Obama's campaign. Clinton came in third, behind Obama and former Sen. John Edwards. 

The 2008 primary contest was close for Democrats as Clinton won a number or large states, including California, New York and Texas. But Obama's strength in the Midwest was evident in Iowa, which ultimately helped him secure the nomination.

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