Constitution Daily

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Why it's tough to win New Hampshire and Iowa in contested years

January 29, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


As America looks ahead to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Constitution Daily looks at the historically difficult task of the same candidate taking both states in a contested primary-season election – and becoming President.

Jimmy Carter, a rare Iowa-New Hampshire double winner

“Doubling down” in Iowa and New Hampshire is against the odds historically: In 17 instances since 1972, since the Iowa caucus came into prominence, only six candidates have been able to take both the Iowa Caucus for their party, as well as the New Hampshire primary in a contested race. (In four other instances, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama ran as incumbents without opposition in Iowa and New Hampshire; George H.W. Bush faced one challenge in 1992 as an incumbent in New Hampshire.)

That comes out to a success rate of 29 percent for candidates trying to take Iowa and New Hampshire in the same primary/caucus season when facing competition in those two states. (In 2012, Mitt Romney just missed the double-double by 33 votes in Iowa.)

But if you double-down in Iowa and New Hampshire as a candidate, the success rate is very good for becoming the nominee: Since 1972, five of the six dual Iowa-New Hampshire winners, or 83 percent, went on to win their nominating convention. Only Edmund Muskie in 1972 failed to be his party’s nominee. (And technically, Muskie finished second to “uncommitted” in Iowa as a choice.)

Here’s the tough news for these winners: Of the five candidates who took Iowa and New Hampshire in contested primary–season races, and won the convention nomination, only one became President. Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in a very close race in 1976 after taking Iowa, New Hampshire and the Democratic convention. (Also for sticklers, Carter like Muskie trailed “uncommitted” as a caucus choice in the 1976 Iowa caucus.)

So in 11 general elections since 1972, only one candidate took a contested caucus in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary in the same year, and then won the general election. That is an overall success rate of 9 percent. Or if you count just the races without successful incumbents seeking re-election, the success rate is 1-in-7, or 14 percent, for dual Iowa-New Hampshire winners in years without strong incumbent candidates in the mix.

The other dual Iowa-New Hampshire-convention winners in these contested years were Ford (1976), Carter (1980), Al Gore (2000) and John Kerry (2004).

Just The Numbers: New Hampshire

The New Hampshire primary came into its own in 1952, when the modern primary system began to take shape. The nomination success rate for Democratic winners in New Hampshire is just 46 percent in contested races since then. Estes Kefauver (twice), Lyndon Johnson, Muskie, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Hillary Clinton were New Hampshire winners who ultimately lost the Democratic nomination. (President Harry Truman also lost as an incumbent.)

The nomination success rate for Republicans is much better in the Granite State since 1952. Nine of 12 GOP primary winners in contested elections there have taken the Republican nomination.

As for becoming President, just two of 13 Democrats who took New Hampshire in a contested primary season have won the general election since 1952: John Kennedy (1960) and Jimmy Carter (1976). In 12 contested GOP New Hampshire primaries since 1952, four of 12 Republican winners went on to the White House: Dwight Eisenhower (1952), Richard Nixon (1968), Ronald Reagan (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1988).

New Hampshire Primary Winners Since 1952



Party NomineeRepublican WinnerParty Nominee
1988DukakisDukakisBush 41Bush 41
1992TsongasB ClintonBush 41Bush 41
1996uncontestedB ClintonBuchananDole
2000GoreGoreMcCainBush 43
2004KerryKerryuncontestedBush 43
2008H. ClintonObamaMcCainMcCain

Just The Odds: Iowa

Adding Iowa to the mix makes winning in the first two states and then the nomination tougher for a Republican candidate since 1972. The success rate for a GOP winner in Iowa as the eventual nominee is just 3 out of 7, or 43 percent, since 1972. Ford (1976), Dole (1996) and George W. Bush (2000) won Iowa in contested years and went on to the nomination, while Ronald Reagan lost in the 1980 caucus. George W. Bush is the only Iowa caucus winner among the Republicans to win the general election in a contested primary season since 1972.

For the Democrats since 1972, six of the nine winners of the Iowa caucus in contested years took the nomination. Muskie, Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin won Iowa but not the nomination. Just two of the nine Iowa caucus winners for the Democrats in contested years won the presidential election: Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008.

Iowa Caucus Since 1972

Democrat WinnerParty NomineeRepublican WinnerParty Nominee
1972MuskieMcGovern              .....  .......
1980CarterCarterBush 41Reagan
1988GephardtDukakisDoleBush 41
1992HarkinB ClintonuncontestedBush 41
1996uncontestedB ClintonDoleDole
2000GoreGoreBush 43Bush 43
2004KerryKerryuncontestedBush 43

Is there a pattern to the White House?

Since this is an election year with contested primary season contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, we took a quick look at how the presidential winners did in Iowa and New Hampshire since 1976, and if there is a common outcome from the two contests.

In six elections where incumbents faced challenges or no incumbents were in the race, the results are decidedly split. In two cases, a successful candidate won in Iowa, lost in New Hampshire, and won the White House. In two other cases, a candidate did the opposite – lost in Iowa and won in New Hampshire.

As we noted before, Jimmy Carter in 1976 took both Iowa and New Hampshire, and won the election. And in 1992, Bill Clinton lost in both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

Winning Combinations In Years With Contested Primaries In Both Parties
White House WinnerIowa CaucusNew Hampshire Primary
1988Bush 41LostWon
1992B. ClintonLostLost
2000Bush 43WonLost

To recap, here are the general trends for presidential candidates in elections where they fought in contested primaries, since 1972:

GOP candidate wins Iowa caucus, wins White House: 14%

Democrat wins Iowa caucus, wins White House: 22%

GOP candidate wins New Hampshire primary, wins White House: 25%

Democrat candidate wins New Hampshire primary, wins White House: 11%

Any candidate wins Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, wins White House: 9%

Any candidate wins Iowa and New Hampshire, wins White House, in year without strong incumbent: 14%

At least one winner in Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, in contested year, wins White House: 83%

If there is a recent jinx, it is in the lack of success in New Hampshire for candidates in years when primaries are contested. In 1976, Carter was the last Democrat to take a contested Democratic New Hampshire primary and win a presidential election, and in 1988, George H.W. Bush was the last Republican to win in a contested Republican New Hampshire primary and become President.

Since Carter in 1976, seven Democratic candidates have won in a contested New Hampshire primary, only to fail in a White House election bid that same year. Since Bush in 1988, five GOP winners of contested New Hampshire primaries never won the general election.

One thing seems more certain: In the six elections since 1972 that saw contested primaries for both parties, five of the six winners took at least one early win in Iowa or New Hampshire. Only Bill Clinton was able to win the general election without a win in the first two states.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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