Sabato's Crystal Ball

Surprises Almost Certain in Iowa and New Hampshire

Larry J. Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics January 14th, 2016


The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire jealously guard their first-in-the-nation franchise in the presidential nomination process, and they view themselves as the public’s screening committees for White House wannabes. You can call them spoiled and indulgent — they insist the candidates should visit them again and again, while singing the praises of questionable products like ethanol. But even if you disagree with their choices, you can’t say they are inattentive or naïve. Iowa and New Hampshire don’t always pick presidents, but they at least winnow the field for the other 48 states and often promote a back-of-the-pack candidate to the first tier.

Sophisticated judgments in Iowa and New Hampshire are the norm, and these voters are schooled in political strategy. Consider 2008: Without Iowa handing her a third-place stunner, Hillary Clinton probably would have been the Democratic nominee and now would be in her second term as president; without New Hampshire, Barack Obama might well have wrapped up the Democratic nomination months before he did. The term “strategic voting” applies to Hawkeye and Granite staters alike. A sizable portion of the voters appears to calculate the overall effect their vote can have going forward.

Partly because of this, surprises are common in the first two contests. Either the early favorite is upset outright, or the order of finish is altered in a substantial way, enough to give new life to some contenders and end the hopes of others.

In 2016 it will be a shock if Iowa and/or New Hampshire don’t rearrange the presidential playing field. After all, they have done so every four years since the 1960s.

Take a look at the dozen presidential races between 1968 and 2012 in the accompanying table. In every single one of the 12 cycles, the deck was reshuffled in one or both parties by the results of the first two contests; sometimes surprises occurred in both states and for both parties.

It’s a warning to us all. As we approach the February battles, let’s remember that the polls and conventional wisdom might well be misleading us. The electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire are canny, a bit mischievous, and perfectly willing to turn on a dime to confound the political world.

History’s spyglass tells us one thing above all: The only surprise will be if there aren’t surprises when Iowa and New Hampshire vote.

Table 1: Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary top finishers, 1968-2012

Notes: *Denotes presidential incumbent; denotes eventual party nominee;denotes write-in candidate. Click here for a PDF version of this table.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; CQ Press Guide to U.S. Elections 6th ed., vol. I; Des Moines Register; The Green Papers