PRINCETON, NJ -- All eyes are on Iowa and New Hampshire in the early part of January as voters in those states cast the first official votes for the 2008 presidential nominations. Until very recently, the races have been fairly stable at the national level, with Sen. Hillary Clinton enjoying a sizable lead over Sen. Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic field, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani consistently leading the Republican field, though by not as large a margin as Clinton has. Some recent national polls suggest that Giuliani has slipped into a tie nationally with Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, or John McCain.
A review of Gallup historical data on national Republicans' and Democrats' presidential nomination preferences shows that the results of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have the potential to shift national preferences, sometimes dramatically. Gallup has polled on national Republicans' and Democrats' presidential nomination preferences since 1936. But it was not until 1972 that primary and caucus voters had a meaningful say in choosing their respective parties' nominees.
Since then, it has not been uncommon for national nomination preferences to quickly change following the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. This has especially been the case when the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary produced an unexpected result, such as with Jimmy Carter's and John Kerry's surprise wins in 1976 and 2004, respectively. In those elections in particular, the race was transformed in the victorious candidates' favor. Sometimes, though, the "bounce" a candidate receives from winning Iowa or New Hampshire is only temporary.
Following is an election-by-election review of Gallup data on national presidential nomination preferences before and after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, beginning with the 1976 election. Because the Iowa and New Hampshire contests often occurred within days of each other, in many cases the analysis compares pre-Iowa numbers with post-Iowa, post-New Hampshire numbers.
Carter is often credited with making the Iowa caucuses the significant contest they are today, targeting his early campaign efforts at that state. Those efforts paid off as Carter's win in Iowa helped him to rise out of obscurity to become a serious contender for, and eventual winner of, the 1976 Democratic nomination. Prior to the Jan. 26, 1976, Iowa caucuses, just 4% of national Democrats said they were likely to support Carter for the nomination, well behind Hubert Humphrey (27%) and George Wallace (22%). Gallup did not poll on the Democratic race again that year until after the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 24, which Carter also won. By that time, Carter was running neck-and-neck nationally with Humphrey.
The Republicans did not contest Iowa in 1976, but incumbent president Gerald Ford managed only a narrow victory over challenger Ronald Reagan in the New Hampshire primary. Ford had led Reagan 55%-35% nationally prior to New Hampshire, but immediately following that contest his lead was cut in half, to 51%-41%. Though Reagan went on to win several state primaries that year, he never got much closer to Ford on the national ballot.
An unpopular President Carter sought re-election in 1980 and faced a challenge for the Democratic nomination from Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy led throughout much of 1979 as Carter's approval ratings were hovering around 30%. In November, the public rallied around Carter after the Iranians seized U.S. hostages, and Kennedy's lead evaporated. Carter won a decisive victory in Iowa on Jan. 21, 1980, and saw his 14-point national lead (51%-37%) surge to 34 points (63%-29%). Carter's lead would decline by the time of the Democratic convention that summer, but he maintained a significant lead over Kennedy for the duration of the campaign.
Reagan entered the 1980 GOP presidential nomination contest as the clear front-runner, and dominated national GOP preference polls throughout 1979. But he suffered a narrow defeat to former CIA Director George H.W. Bush in Iowa, and Bush surged in the polls as a result. Immediately following Iowa, Bush and Reagan were tied. Bush's surge did not last, however, and within a week, Reagan had regained a slim national lead of seven points. After winning the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 26, Reagan regained his dominant positioning over the rest of the GOP field.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale entered the 1984 campaign as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination and probable challenger to President Reagan. Mondale won easily in Iowa on Feb. 20, but lost in an upset in New Hampshire on Feb. 28 to Sen. Gary Hart.
Gallup did not poll in between the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary that year, but Mondale's once-formidable lead essentially disappeared after those two contests. Prior to Iowa, he held a 36-point lead. After New Hampshire, Hart surged from 3% to 30% nationally, and pulled into a statistical dead heat with Mondale. Hart and Mondale remained locked in a tight battle in national Gallup Polls for the next month, before Mondale began to pull away on his way to winning the nomination.
Gallup polled on national Democrats' and Republicans' presidential nomination preferences before Iowa but not again until after Iowa, New Hampshire, and that year's "Super Tuesday" Southern primaries. As a result, it is not possible to isolate the impact of the 1988 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary on national nomination preferences in 1988.
In 1992, Democrats did not contest the Iowa caucuses because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was a presidential candidate, making the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary the first critical test of strength that year. Gov. Bill Clinton had emerged as the national Democratic front-runner by the time of the New Hampshire primary, but his campaign was nearly derailed by accusations of marital infidelity. Nevertheless, he managed a strong second-place finish to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in that primary. That was enough to help Clinton maintain his national front-runner status, even though Tsongas' national support more than tripled after he won in New Hampshire.
Incumbent president George H.W. Bush was challenged for the GOP nomination by commentator Patrick Buchanan. Bush held a commanding lead throughout the campaign, even after Buchanan gave him a serious challenge in the New Hampshire primary.
Sen. Bob Dole, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1980 and 1988, was a solid front-runner entering the 1996 election year. Despite a narrow win in Iowa on Feb. 12 and a narrow loss in New Hampshire to Buchanan on Feb. 20, Dole remained the clear leader in national preferences. The main effect of the 1996 Iowa and New Hampshire results was to reorder the relative standings of the second-tier candidates (businessman Steve Forbes, Buchanan, and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander).
The 2000 Iowa caucus results did little to move the national numbers, largely because the front-runners (Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush) each comfortably won their respective party's caucuses. Prior to the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses, Gore led Sen. Bill Bradley 60% to 28%, and he led 67% to 22% after winning there. There was also little shift in the national numbers after Gore defeated Bradley in New Hampshire on Feb. 1.
The GOP race also changed little after the 2000 Iowa caucuses, but changed more substantially following New Hampshire. Front-runner George W. Bush led Sen. John McCain 64%-17% before the Iowa caucuses and 64%-15% after winning there. McCain upset Bush in New Hampshire, and while Bush maintained a sizable lead nationally, his support fell (to 56%) and McCain's increased (33%). That was as close as McCain would get to Bush during that campaign.
Prior to the Jan. 19, 2004, Iowa caucuses, former Gov. Howard Dean had emerged as the Democratic front-runner, with 25% national support, and Gen. Wesley Clark appeared to be his strongest challenger at 19%. Sen. John Kerry was supported by just 9% of national Democrats, about the same level of support as Rep. Dick Gephardt (8%), Sen. Joe Lieberman (7%), and Sen. John Edwards (6%) received. Kerry won an upset victory in Iowa, and followed that up with a solid victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 27. After his win in those two contests, Kerry became the overwhelming choice of national Democrats, with 47% supporting him. Edwards and Dean tied for second at 13% in the first post-Iowa/post-New Hampshire national poll.
It is clear that rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans nationwide pay attention to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary results, and therefore, national preferences have often changed in response to the outcomes of these two contests. That has especially been the case when the Iowa or New Hampshire results deviated from expectations, with the winning candidate often surging in the national polls. Those surges have likely been fueled by the positive media attention that is showered on the winners, and may have been aided further by more critical coverage of the candidates who failed to meet expectations.
Those post-Iowa, post-New Hampshire surges have propelled back-of-the-pack candidates like Carter and Kerry to their party's nomination. But in other cases, as with Bush in 1980 or Hart in 1984, the post-Iowa or post-New Hampshire surge was short-lived, and the previous front-running candidate recovered and went on to win the nomination.
In still other cases, such as for the Democrats in both 1980 and 2000, the national front-runners won the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, and as a result, the national numbers were largely unaffected.
And for the Democrats in 1992 and the Republicans in 1996, the front-runners did not win (or win decisively) in the key early contests, but neither did they suffer much in the national polls.
The historical data, then, do not yield much insight into how or even whether the national numbers might change following this year's Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Usually, the candidates' performance is evaluated by how they meet expectations rather than how they finish in relation to their competitors. But even those expectations are somewhat murky this year, as most recent state pre-election polls of Iowa and New Hampshire voters predict very close contests on both the Republican and Democratic sides. The potential is certainly there, however, for national preferences to be shaken up in the coming days, particularly if one of the candidates scores a decisive victory in Iowa or New Hampshire.