It has become fashionable of late to denigrate the importance of Iowa's caucuses, and even New Hampshire's primary, by suggesting neither has been very successful at picking party nominees. Naysayers note that only two of the last five Republican winners in Iowa garnered the party's nomination, while only three in five New Hampshire victors became the party's general-election standard-bearer.
However, such analyses err by missing the dramatic joint impact of these two contests. Since 1976, when proliferating primaries and caucuses became the basis for selecting convention delegates, every single nominee but one, in both parties, won either Iowa or New Hampshire. The singular exception occurred in 1992 when a favorite son rendered Iowa's Democratic caucuses moot and Bill Clinton's comeback, second-place finish to a near favorite son in New Hampshire left the contest unresolved.
For decades Iowa and New Hampshire have held the keys to the nomination, and I'm betting 2012 will be no different. Certainly Mitt Romney's paper-thin Iowa win Tuesday does not guarantee him the nomination, but at a minimum, a race that has seen seven different front-runners is now effectively a two-man contest between Romney and Rick Santorum, who nearly tied him.
Victories in these early contests move votes elsewhere. In 1980, George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan by 2 percentage points in Iowa, and his national poll standing more than doubled, though Reagan's massive New Hampshire victory propelled him to the nomination. John F. Kerry picked up about 20 points nationally from his Iowa win and an additional 13 as a result of his New Hampshire victory. In 2008, John McCain added more than 20 points to his national vote tally following his New Hampshire win.
After his 1980 Iowa victory, Bush looked "forward to 'big mo' being on our side."
At the root of that momentum are two V's: visibility and viability, both of which attract cash to a campaign. Historically, Iowa and New Hampshire account for about half the news media coverage of the entire primary season, with the winners absorbing the lion's share of the attention. Moreover, coverage of the winners tends to be almost entirely positive, which fuels rising poll numbers. It's extremely difficult for those who fail to win either of the first races to catch up. Kerry's name identification and favorability both skyrocketed by 30 points after his Iowa and New Hampshire triumphs. In 2008, Mike Huckabee added more than 20 points in name ID after his Iowa victory, though he ultimately lost the nomination to McCain, the New Hampshire victor.
Voter assessments of candidates' viability matter as well. Most people want to support a candidate they believe has some chance of winning. Early victories provide incontrovertible evidence that a candidate can win. Losses raise questions about viability — questions the media reinforce by asking losers daily how long they plan to remain in the race. And donors flood winners with cash, while losers' bank accounts dwindle.
Where does this leave the Republicans of 2012?
The Hawkeye State dashed the hopes of a raft of former front-runners: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Having once been a front-runner, Ron Paul too needed a victory in Iowa to become a viable candidate, and his third-place showing won't bestow much benefit in the races to come.
Romney's Iowa showing will almost certainly propel him to victory in New Hampshire, where his service as governor of Massachusetts — whose media markets cover most of the Granite State — already gives him a substantial edge. It's the kind of innate advantage that gave the state to Kerry after his Iowa victory. And if Romney wins both early contests, he will probably capture the nomination as well. Other candidates may win some states down the road (as, say, John Edwards did against Kerry in 2004), but that will do little to alter the final outcome.
Santorum's surprise showing could throw a wrench into those calculations and reshape the race if he skips New Hampshire and brings in the cash and fields the organization necessary to win enough of the primaries that follow. But the hurdles will be high for what has been, at least until now, a bare-bones effort.
But pay no attention to all the talk about "three tickets out of Iowa" — it's hard to imagine anyone other than Romney or Santorum capturing the nomination. When all is said and done, the eventual Republican nominee will most likely have come in first either in Iowa, New Hampshire or both.
Mark Mellman is president of a consulting firm that provides research-based strategy to Democratic candidates, public interest groups and corporations.