TURES COLUMN: How good of a crystal ball are the first four presidential nomination elections?

Published 2:14 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2024

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As the snow dust settles from the Iowa Caucus outcome, New Hampshire voters prepare to cast their ballots, and South Carolina and Nevada await their turn, it may be useful to consider which of these early states are most likely to pick a presidential nominee.  Which state should candidates focus the most on?  And do the results matter by political party?

Now some other articles look at the topic, but usually in the context of a single primary or caucus or two cases, or they cover perhaps an example or two of a winner of an early state who didn’t make it to the finish line.  Former Iowa Caucus winner Mike Huckabee even claimed on Fox News that his contest might well tell you who won’t be president.

To answer how important the first few ballot box battles are, several LaGrange College students, Ryan Avin, Daniel Cody, Parker Floyd, Jack Hurd, Eli Rogers, Ema Turner, Hannah Walls, and Samuel Whitt, spent their first week of class gathering examples of these early voting states, by political party, from 1976 through 2020 (excluding uncompetitive contests).  And here’s what the candidates, parties and supporters should know about the first four elections.

1) The Early Voting State With The Best Record Of Picking A Presidential Nominee Is…

South Carolina.  Our research showed that the South Carolina Primary go on to pick the presidential primary winner 72.2% of the time from 1976 to 2020.  You may have heard that New Hampshire doesn’t tend to pick the winner, but the Granite state picks the nominee 63.1% of the time, good for second place in our analysis.

Huckabee is right that Iowa doesn’t always get it right, but they did correctly pick 57.9% of the presidential nominees between 1976 and 2020.  As for Nevada, the Silver State fared the worst.  In barely half the time (52.6%), Nevadans chose the nominee.

2) The Political Party That Benefits The Most From Early State Election Contests Is…

The Republican Party. Perhaps Huckabee was on to something, as only 44.4% of Iowa winners capture the GOP Convention. New Hampshire tends to pick the nominee for the Republicans 77.7% of the time. For South Carolina, the Palmetto State picks the GOP nominee 87.5% of the time. Nevada is right 66.6% of the time for choosing who will represent the Republican Party in the Fall.  Overall, the first four states help project the GOP winner 69.1% of the time.

It’s a different story for the Democrats. While the Iowa Caucus is right 70% of the time for Democrats, New Hampshire Primary winners are a virtual coin flip for projecting who will represent the Dems at the next convention.  South Carolina winners go on to take the nomination 60% of the time for Democrats, but only 40% of the time in the case of Nevada. In general, early states pick the winners 55% of the time, on average, for the Democratic Party.

There are reasons for these, of course. South Carolina tends to be a “winner-take-all” state, giving Trump 100% of their delegates for finishing first with only 33% of the vote.  Nevada was the last state to be an early voting state, and its record of picking nominees improved with the change in schedule.  And Republicans in general have more states with the “winner-take-all” rules than Democrats, who tend to award delegates proportionally.  

But regardless, the results show that despite anecdotal evidence that these contests don’t matter, these states range between being 55% and 90% correct.  So even those early voters have whiffed a few times on selecting the nominee, their outcomes cannot be ignored.