Home Politics Iowa Caucuses vs. New Hampshire Primaries: Which Matters More in Predicting Presidential Nominees?

Iowa Caucuses vs. New Hampshire Primaries: Which Matters More in Predicting Presidential Nominees?

by Scott Kacsmar
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Primary vs Caucus

In the case of the Iowa caucuses, it sure does pay to be the 1st event among the party contests during an election year.

But New Hampshire has been the 1st state primary since 1920. Each contest always gets an overwhelming amount of media coverage and attention from oddsmakers at political betting sites, as we start to put numbers from real voters for how people view these presidential candidates.

But these events do have consequences and spur action. After a poor showing in Iowa, 4th-place candidate Vivek Ramaswamy (7.7%) and 6th-place candidate Asa Hutchinson (0.2%) both suspended their campaigns for president.

Donald Trump won the 2024 Iowa Republican caucus with 51% of the vote, receiving 20 delegates from the state. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis finished in 2nd place with 21.2% of the vote and he received 9 delegates. Nikki Haley was a close 3rd place with 19.1% and 8 delegates.

With Trump’s big win, why do some expect he will struggle more in New Hampshire, and is New Hampshire more predictive or important than Iowa for who is eventually nominated?

We look at the differences between Iowa and New Hampshire and which one does the better job of predicting the election ballot for November.

What Makes the Iowa Caucus Different from the New Hampshire Primary?

First, the Iowa event is a caucus, meaning people must show up to a meeting in the evening in their local district. Speeches are made to show support for candidates, then a vote is held to determine the winner and how many delegates they receive.

With the New Hampshire primary and primaries in general, people can just visit a local voting station and cast their ballot during normal voting hours, which usually run from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

The makeup of voters should also be expected to be considerably different between the states. Entrance polls in Iowa showed that only 18% of caucus voters were independents or people who crossed over from Democrats to Republicans on the day of the caucuses.

In New Hampshire, independents are allowed to vote right alongside Republicans in the primary. There are more independents (400,000) registered in New Hampshire than there are Republicans (300,000), so that could help explain why the projections for Trump may not be as big as they were in Iowa, where voters are largely pro-GOP and also significantly identify as evangelical Christians, a huge part of Trump’s base.

Historical Results of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary

So, just how accurate have the 1st caucus and the 1st primary been at predicting the nominee in each party?

The 1st Iowa caucus was on the Democratic side in 1972, so we limited our research to the period of 1972-2020, which is a pretty good standard for modern American politics anyway. We also ignored years where there was an incumbent for one of the parties since no incumbent has ever been seriously challenged by their own party in this time.

Iowa Caucuses – Republican Results

  • 1980: George H.W. Bush (did not win; party nominee Ronald Reagan finished 2nd)
  • 1988: Bob Dole (did not win; party nominee George H. W. Bush finished 3rd)
  • 1996: Bob Dole (won party)
  • 2000: George W. Bush (won party)
  • 2008: Mike Huckabee (did not win; party nominee John McCain finished 4th)
  • 2012: Rick Santorum (did not win; party nominee Mitt Romney finished 2nd)
  • 2016: Ted Cruz (did not win; party nominee Donald Trump finished 2nd)

Iowa success rate: 2-of-7 (28.6%) with 3 runners-up, a 3rd-place winner, and a 4th-place winner

New Hampshire Primary – Republican Results

  • 1980: Ronald Reagan (won party nomination)
  • 1988: George H. W. Bush (won party nomination)
  • 1996: Pat Buchanan (did not win party nomination; winner Bob Dole finished 2nd)
  • 2000: John McCain (did not win party nomination; winner George W. Bush finished 2nd)
  • 2008: John McCain (won party nomination)
  • 2012: Mitt Romney (won party nomination)
  • 2016: Donald Trump (won party nomination)

New Hampshire success rate: 5-of-7 (71.4%) with both misses still finishing in 2nd place

Overall, New Hampshire has done well in getting 5-of-7 Republican candidates right. Their only misses also finished in 2nd place. Iowa has been a mess here with no outright winner since Bush in 2000, and they have not done well at getting the eventual winner to finish 2nd either.

Bush 2000 Iowa

If you finish 1st or 2nd in New Hampshire on the Republican side, you have to feel good about that for your prospects.

Now let’s look at the Democrats.

Iowa Caucuses – Democratic Results

  • 1972: Edmund Muskie (did not win; party nominee George McGovern finished 2nd)
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter (won party)
  • 1984: Walter Mondale (won party)
  • 1988: Dick Gephardt (did not win; party nominee Michael Dukakis finished 3rd)
  • 1992: Tom Harkin (did not win; party nominee Bill Clinton finished 3rd)
  • 2000: Al Gore (won party)
  • 2004: John Kerry (won party)
  • 2008: Barack Obama (won party)
  • 2016: Hillary Clinton (won party)
  • 2020: Pete Buttigieg (did not win; party nominee Joe Biden finished 4th)

Iowa success rate: 6-of-10 (60%) with 1 runner-up, a pair of 3rd-place winners, and a 4th-place winner (Joe Biden).

New Hampshire Primary – Democratic Results

  • 1972: Edmund Muskie (did not win; party nominee George McGovern finished 2nd)
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter (won party)
  • 1984: Gary Hart (did not win; party nominee Walter Mondale finished 2nd)
  • 1988: Michael Dukakis (won party)
  • 1992: Paul Tsongas (did not win; party nominee Bill Clinton finished 2nd)
  • 2000: Al Gore (won party)
  • 2004: John Kerry (won party)
  • 2008: Hillary Clinton (did not win; party nominee Barack Obama finished 2nd)
  • 2016: Bernie Sanders (did not win; party nominee Hillary Clinton finished 2nd)
  • 2020: Bernie Sanders (did not win; party nominee Joe Biden finished 5th)

New Hampshire success rate: 4-of-10 (40%) with 5 runners-up and a distant 5th-place winner (Joe Biden)

Interestingly, we get the opposite results on the Democratic side where the Iowa caucuses have done a better job (albeit slightly) than the New Hampshire primary. This also underscores just how improbable Biden’s comeback was in 2020 after this bad start.

Which Matters More in Predicting the Presidential Nominees?

Overall, Iowa got 8-of-17 (47.1%) and New Hampshire got 9-of-17 (52.9%) party nominees correct. A slight edge to New Hampshire, but it does vary by which party you look at.

For example, the last 3 Democratic winners in New Hampshire are 0-3 at getting the nomination while the last 3 Republican winners are 3-0. Since the Republican race is the contested one this year, that could bode well for a big showing from Trump in New Hampshire.

A bad showing in New Hampshire by Nikki Haley and she might want to close shop this year. None of the Republicans since 1972 have been able to win the nominee without a top 2 finish in the New Hampshire primary.

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Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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