Caution for Clinton: Iowa’s history of toppling front-runners

As Hillary Rodham Clinton weighs a run for president in 2016, she will have to consider Iowa's history of tripping up front-runners, including herself in 2008 with a disappointing third-place finish.
(Gerald Herbert / AP)
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DES MOINES - Iowa is a tough state for presidential front-runners. It may be the passive-aggressive nature of voters. Iowans are exceedingly polite; it’s the kind of place you’re expected to greet and even chat with others stepping onto an elevator. At the same time, voters here seem to pride themselves on taking politicians down a notch. “Fancy” is not a compliment.

The caucuses, a precinct-level meeting of party activists, gained notice in 1972 when South Dakota’s Democratic Sen. George S. McGovern managed to place an unexpected third in a presidential preference straw poll, behind “uncommitted” and the front-running Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. That established a pattern that has held true for more than 40 years: “Winning” the caucuses doesn’t mean attaining more votes than anyone else. It simply means beating expectations, the benchmark established through a mystical process involving campaign strategists, pundits, donors, academics, analysts – in short, anyone following closely enough to be interviewed by reporters covering the caucuses.

In 1976, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter rocketed from political obscurity by placing second in the caucuses—nearly 10 percentage points behind “uncommitted”-- helping launch him to the White House and firmly establishing Iowa’s place as a presidential proving ground.


Since then, more than a few favorites have been tripped up. As Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist and co-author of a caucus history, explained, “The better known you are, the more of a minefield the caucuses are, as the expectations get higher.”

To wit:

-- In 1980, former U.N. Ambassador and CIA Director George H.W. Bush actually won the Iowa Republican caucuses outright, edging the front-running former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Bush’s self-proclaimed “Big Mo—as in momentum--proved short-lived, though, as Reagan bounced back to right his campaign with a follow-up victory in the New Hampshire primary. But Bush’s Iowa showing helped land him on the GOP ticket with Reagan in November.

-- In 1984, former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale won a commanding 49% of the vote to Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s 17%. But Hart was deemed the “winner” since he exceeded expectations (see above). His performance catapulted him to victory in the New Hampshire primary, setting up a fierce fight for the Democratic nomination that Mondale eventually won.

-- In 1988, it was Bush’s turn to stumble. As vice president, he finished an embarrassing third, behind Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and the Rev. Pat Robertson. He, too, turned his campaign around with a solid New Hampshire victory over Dole.

-- In 2004, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts—once given up for dead—surged past former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose war-whooping consolation speech —“We’re going to South Carolina, and Oklahoma, Arizona, and North Dakota….eeeeaaaaahhhhh!” will be long remembered, though not necessarily in a good way.

-- In 2008, the prohibitive Democratic front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, slid to a humbling third-place showing, behind Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and ex-South Carolina Sen. John Edwards, igniting Obama’s campaign and banishing the air of inevitability that buoyed Clinton’s candidacy. She never fully recovered.


-- In 2012, after equivocating, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney plunged into Iowa and appeared to walk away with a narrow victory on caucus night. But a recount showed that ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum squeaked past the former Massachusetts governor. The vote total didn’t matter. Santorum’s surprise finish was enough to position him as the main rival to Romney, who eventually prevailed in the nominating fight.

Twitter: @markzbarabak