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Anticipating Iowa

If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania manages to win the Iowa Republican caucuses Tuesday night, it would be a first.

For since the Iowa Republican caucuses emerged in their present form in 1980, the winners have come from the America’s agrarian heartland rather than from either coast. California’s Ronald Reagan never won the state’s caucuses, nor did Arizona’s John McCain. 

Rather, past GOP caucus winners have been able to make a geographical connection with Iowa’s rural, small-town base and its Midwestern values. Kansas’ Bob Dole twice won the caucuses, while Texas’ two Bushes and Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee triumphed once apiece.

But things are different this time. Rep. Michele Bachmann has the best pedigree. She was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and used her local roots to good effect in winning the Republican straw vote last August. But her campaign has come a cropper since then, as has that of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who has compared the vast open spaces of his home state with those of Iowa. 

Still, until the caucus ballots are actually counted, no candidate is really out of the running.  It does not take very many votes to win or do well in Iowa – Huckabee finished first in 2008 with barely 40,000 votes. And overall turnout in the GOP caucuses has never exceeded 120,000. As a result, the top of the Iowa leader board is often crowded. 

Since the GOP caucuses emerged in its present form in 1980, winning percentages have ranged from a low of 26% for Bob Dole in 1996 to a high of 41% for George W. Bush in 2000, with an average winning percentage of 34%. 

Meanwhile, the margin of victory has run from 2 percentage points (George H.W. Bush over Ronald Reagan in 1980) to 12 points (Dole over Pat Robertson in 1988). The average spread between first and second place in the five Iowa GOP caucuses since 1980 has been 7 points. 

In 2008, Huckabee won with 34% of the caucus vote, and scored a comparatively large 9-point margin over runner-up Mitt Romney. Romney finished then with 25% of the caucus vote, about where he stands now in pre-caucus polling. But just matching his 2008 showing would probably not be good enough for Romney to win tonight in Iowa. He would likely need to push his percentage up several points to achieve victory.


Ranking the Iowa GOP Caucus Winners 
(by percentage of vote)

Note:  Iowa Republican caucus results are based on a non-binding straw vote held in conjunction with the precinct caucuses that bears no relation to delegate selection.

Source:  Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press).

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