It’s no secret Republicans nationally and in Iowa are anxious concerning the results of next Tuesday’s caucus. The reason for such anxiety centers on whether the candidate or candidates who do well in Iowa go on to success in New Hampshire and nationally.
The viability of Republican caucus winners is not simply an artifact of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign. Examining the value of Republican success in Iowa as a predictor of success in New Hampshire and beyond reveals a rather weak record when compared to Democrats.
Since 1980, Republicans have held five competitive caucuses for which there is reliable data. In terms of predicting the nominee, the Republican winner in Iowa has gone on to be the nominee just twice (Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000).
For Democrats, of the nine competitive caucuses held since 1972, the winner of Iowa has gone on to be the nominee six times (this includes counting Carter in 1976 even though “Uncommitted” was the true winner).
Looking at the percent vote share candidates receive in Iowa and New Hampshire reveals an even more dramatic difference.
For Republicans, since 1980, the percent vote received by candidates in Iowa explains only 21 percent of the variation observed in the percent vote of candidates in New Hampshire.
For Democrats, since 1972, Iowa vote share explains 46 percent of the variability observed in the New Hampshire vote. Excluding 1992, when Iowa’s own Senator Tom Harkin ran, the number jumps to 72 percent.
In short, the percent vote received in Iowa is a much better predictor of the vote share received in New Hampshire for Democrats compared to Republicans. Or, put another way, Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire are more similar than Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A CNN/Time/ORC poll released today of likely caucus-goers adds to the Republican anxiety noted above. While Mitt Romney and Ron Paul remain the top two candidates at 25 and 22 percent, Rick Santorum has surged into third place with 16 percent of the vote.
On the one hand, Santorum’s surge is partial vindication of the Iowa axiom that candidates must practice “retail politics” in order to do well on caucus night. Santorum has barnstormed the state, visiting all 99 counties at least once, many multiple times. And such persistence finally started to pay dividends when Santorum received the endorsement of Iowa’s Secretary of State Matt Schultz in early December, followed by Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley later in the month.
Of course critics of the Iowa caucus will point to Santorum’s poll numbers in national polls, where his support often registers in single digits. In the latest Gallup poll, Santorum came in at 4 percent, just two percentage points ahead of Jon Huntsman.
Should Santorum come in first next Tuesday, he is unlikely to win the following week in New Hampshire where he is polling at 4 percent, and equally or even less likely to be the nominee.
Previous polling indicates Republicans who identify as evangelical or born-again Christians comprise a third to 40 percent of likely caucus-goers. For these folks, Santorum is a close fit based on policy and moral principles.
If these Republicans turn out in large numbers on Tuesday, they face a choice between voting based on principle and voting based on electability. The data cited above suggests such voters may want to consider the latter if they view the Iowa caucus as an important stepping stone to national success.