Achieving a level of momentum that has proved valuable in the past, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama both performed better than expected in the Republican and Democratic Iowa caucuses in Iowa Thursday night, better than the seven-day polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics.com (RCP). Compared to RCP-calculated leads of 1.6 percentage points over Hillary Clinton and 4.8 points over John Edwards, Mr. Obama, who received 37.58 percent of the vote, finished 7.83 points ahead of Mr. Edwards and 8.11 points ahead of Mrs. Clinton. Compared to RCP-calculated leads of 3 points over Mitt Romney and 18 points over John McCain and Fred Thompson, Mr. Huckabee, who received about 34 percent of the vote, finished 9 points ahead of Mr. Romney and 21 points ahead of Messrs. McCain and Thompson.
In “The Boys on the Bus,” his book about the political reporters and columnists on the 1972 presidential campaign, Timothy Crouse recounted how the “better than expected” mystique evolved from the 1972 Democratic caucuses in Iowa. “See, it wasn’t like a primary. No one knew how to interpret these figures, and nobody knew what was good and what was bad, so [the reporters] were all taking it off Apple,” a George McGovern staffer later said of the influence of the late R.W. (“Johnny”) Apple Jr. of the the New York Times. “Finally, at midnight, the guy announced that [front-running Sen. Edmund] Muskie had 32 percent and McGovern had 26 percent, and Apple sat down to write his final story. He called it something like ‘a surprisingly strong showing for George McGovern.’ Everyone peered over [Apple’s] shoulder again and picked it up. It was on the front page of every major newspaper the next day.”
Mr. Muskie’s Iowa margin proved to be 13 points, but it was Mr. McGovern who succeeded in exploiting his “better than expected” performance. In the New Hampshire primary six weeks later, Mr. McGovern captured 37 percent of the vote, losing by only 9 points to Mr. Muskie, from neighboring Maine. The Muskie boom soon died, and after George McGovern defeated Hubert Humphrey in California’s winner-take-all primary in June, his march to the nomination, which began with a “better than expected” showing in Iowa, became unstoppable.
Four years later, the largely unknown Jimmy Carter leaped from his surprising victory in Iowa to his party’s nomination and the White House. In the 1980 Iowa Republican caucuses, George H.W. Bush performed much “better than expected” and narrowly upset heavily favored Ronald Reagan; but Mr. Bush’s “Big Mo” was stopped dead by the Gipper’s performance at a New Hampshire debate (“I paid for this microphone”). Without that early showing in Iowa, however, Mr. Bush probably would not have become the Reagan vice president. Without that, he would not have been elected president in 1988 — all after that miserable third-place finish in Iowa.
In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale captured 49 percent of the vote in Iowa; but because Gary Hart performed “better than expected” (17 percent) in finishing second, he masterfully exploited the minimalist accomplishment and defeated Mr. Mondale by nearly 10 points eight days later in New Hampshire. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland eventually rescued Mr. Mondale in Alabama and Georgia on Super Tuesday, where defeat probably would have been followed by withdrawal.
George W. Bush’s 10-point Iowa victory in 2000 did not prevent John McCain from clobbering him 49-30 in New Hampshire, but if he had lost in Iowa and again in New Hampshire he likely would have lost everything. Four years ago, John Kerry’s late surge to a 6-point win in Iowa catapulted him to a 12-point victory over Howard Dean, once heavily favored, in New Hampshire. He proceeded to win it all, until November.
Performing “better than expected” in Iowa clearly does not routinely lead to victory the following November. But it can derail the front-runner (1972); it can be the ticket to the vice presidency (1980); and it can be the first step toward a once-unthinkable nomination (1972 and 2004). A little something to keep in mind.