The voters in Iowa have finally spoken, but what exactly did they say? More importantly for the Palmetto State, will South Carolinians listen?
After all, South Carolinians are known to be an independent lot, and at first glance, past Iowa results seem to have little bearing on the results here.
But if we look a little closer, we can see some patterns emerge. These aren’t stringent rules. No one should imply there’s any causation in these findings. But there are indicators, nonetheless.
With a quick nod to the dead heat the Democrats posted in Iowa while officially making the rest of their primary schedule a two-person race, we’ll start by examining the Republicans, since they vote first in South Carolina.
The graph you see charts how Republican candidates in the six contested primaries from 1980 to 2012 (with the exception of 1992, which was effectively a two-person race between incumbent George H.W. Bush who won every primary and Pat Buchanan) performed in Iowa against how they fared in South Carolina. For guidance, candidates in bold won the Republican nomination, italicized names won in South Carolina, and underlined candidates won in Iowa. The Iowa results are on the horizontal line, while South Carolina results run along the vertical axis.
It’s important to note: the chart uses a candidate’s performance against the mean rather than their absolute voting percentages. After all, the number of candidates vying for votes also plays an important factor. Receiving 20 percent of the vote in an 11-person race, like this year, is very good, more than double the mean (9.1 percent). Receiving 20 percent of the vote in a three-person race, however, means you either finished last or well behind the winner. Using this comparison to the mean allows us to compare races even when they don’t have the same number of candidates.
But will that change this year? There are still a lot of questions, so, with that in mind, let’s examine the past results to see what we find.
- Six candidates might have earned national delegates in Iowa, but it’s hard to say there’s “six tickets” out of the Hawkeye State that make it to South Carolina.
Even with Mike Huckabee dropping out of the race before the final votes in Iowa were counted, there still is an exorbitant number of GOP hopefuls. And more than half the GOP field, (or exactly half, if you include Jim Gilmore, who received a total of 12 votes) received at least one national delegate from the Iowa voters. Of the 27 pledged delegates, Ted Cruz received eight, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio received seven each, Ben Carson received three, and Rand Paul and Jeb Bush each received one.
However, it’s hard to say there are “six tickets out” of Iowa, via New Hampshire, to South Carolina. Only one time in the last six competitive GOP primaries have there still been six candidates running by the time South Carolina came around. That was in 2008, and the person that finished sixth in South Carolina – Rudy Giuliani – was attempting a unique “wait until Florida” campaign, which ultimately crashed and burned.
- A candidate can do well in South Carolina by winning Iowa, but slightly under-performing in Iowa could actually be more helpful.
Two of the six South Carolina primary winners – Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 – also won in Iowa. However, three of the South Carolina primary winners (Gingrich in 2012, McCain in 2008, and George H.W. Bush in 1988) actually finished slightly, as in less than two percentage points, below the candidate average, or mean, in Iowa. Bush and McCain went on to garner the party’s nomination, and in 1988 Bush turned a third-place Iowa finish into the Presidency.
This year, this could be a good sign for Rand Paul, although this might be a stretch, since his 4.5 percent of the vote in Iowa should be considered a little bit more than just slightly below the mean.
- More than six points below the mean in Iowa, however, means you probably don’t make it to South Carolina.
A poor showing in Iowa, even by candidates skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, doesn’t appear to play well in South Carolina. And since we already know Huckabee is out, this message goes to the five other candidates – Fiorina, Kasich, Christie, Santorum, and even Bush (who actually received a delegate with his sixth-place finish) – who received less than three percent of the Iowa vote.
Of the 14 candidates who performed this poorly in Iowa over the past six competitive primaries, only three even made it to South Carolina. Two of those three – Jack Kemp in 1988, and Giuliani in 2000 – finished last in the Palmetto State. The only candidate to have an above-average result in South Carolina after a poor Iowa showing was John McCain in 2000.
- Scoring above the mean in Iowa, however, means you can likely make it to South Carolina, regardless of New Hampshire.
While the state of his campaign seems to bode otherwise, this could be a good sign for Ben Carson. With a whopping 11 candidates on the ballot (once again, excluding Gilmore) in Iowa, all a candidate needed to do this year was receive 9.1 percent of the vote to finish above the average. With 99.9 percent of the Iowa precincts reporting, Carson sat 0.2 percentage points above the average.
With that, Carson joins a list of 18 other candidates (including Cruz, Trump and Rubio) who have finished Iowa above average. Only two of those candidates, Steve Forbes in 2000 and Howard Baker in 1980, suspended their campaigns before the South Carolina primary.
- Finishing second in Iowa can be dangerous, with one very large exception
This could be bad news for Trump. Only two GOP candidates since 1980 have finished second in Iowa and then gone on to win the party’s nomination, with only one of these men winning in South Carolina. One of the candidates who won the nomination was Mitt Romney in 2012, who finished second in South Carolina, as well. This happened four years after Romney finished second in Iowa, only to fade in South Carolina to a disappointing fourth-place finish and eventually lose the nomination to McCain.
Most Iowa runners-up have seen it lead to mediocrity in South Carolina, if not worse. In 2000, Steve Forbes didn’t even make it here. In 1988, Pat Robertson ended up finishing third in South Carolina, and in 1996, Pat Buchanan followed his runner-up performance in Iowa with another runner-up performance in the Palmetto State.
But, before it becomes too discouraging for Trump supporters, the only candidate who finished second in Iowa was then won in South Carolina went on to the White House. That man was none other than Ronald Reagan in 1980.