I don't have anything against Iowa's Republican caucusgoers. They're nice people, good Americans, conscientious and aware of their responsibilities as voters in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary. (Iowa Democratic caucusgoers are like this too.)
But the Iowa Republican caucuses have a poor record in choosing their party's nominees. In the five presidential nominating cycles with active Iowa Republican caucus competition, the Hawkeye State has voted for the eventual Republican nominee only twice—in 1996 for Bob Dole, in 2000 for George W. Bush—and only once was the Iowa winner elected president.
The state's Democrats have a better record, producing a surprise victory for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and a big victory for eventual nominee Walter Mondale in 1984. They faltered in 1988 as Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon came in ahead of nominee Michael Dukakis, and in 1992, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin swept the field. But they gave big victories to Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.
One reason Iowa Democrats have been better prognosticators than Iowa Republicans is that more people participate in their caucuses. About twice as many people showed up for the Democratic precinct caucuses as for their Republican counterparts in 2008. In a state of three million people, a bare 119,000 Republicans showed up for the caucuses. Some 60% of them identified as evangelical or born-again Christians—a far higher percentage than in any presidential contest in any large non-Southern state that year.
"Other early voting states have a better record than Iowa of picking Republican winners."
The small, skewed turnout resulted in a victory for Mike Huckabee, who ran ads identifying himself as a "Christian leader." In later contests in other states, Mr. Huckabee, despite sparkling performances in debate and impressive command of popular culture, failed to win more than 15% of the support of those who did not identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and he lost to John McCain.
Other early voting states have a better record than Iowa of picking Republican winners. New Hampshire primary voters gave victories to eventual nominees Richard Nixon in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. South Carolina, whose early contest was concocted by Bush operative Lee Atwater in 1988, has done even better, backing the senior Bush in 1988 and 1992 primaries, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008. In both states the primary electorate is a much larger and more representative sample of the Republican voting population than in Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has been complaining for months that too few Republican presidential candidates in this cycle have been spending time in the state, doing retail campaigning in all or some substantial percentage of Iowa's 99 counties. True enough, Rick Santorum has done events in all 99 and Michele Bachmann is on a bus tour that will take her to all 99 too. But both Rick Perry and Herman Cain jumped to leads in Iowa polls without much personal campaigning there.
If I were running the Iowa Republican Party, I would be seeking to vastly increase the turnout at the Jan. 3 caucuses. After all, those who turn out can be recruited to help in future Iowa Republican campaigns. I would be especially interested in attracting new young voters; the median age of 2008 caucusgoers was nudging up toward 60.
Yet despite polls showing that Republicans are enthusiastic about the coming campaign and determined to defeat Barack Obama, Iowa Republican insiders are predicting that turnout will not exceed and may not even reach the 119,000 of 2008, when Republicans were dispirited about their party's chances. Puzzling.
If those turnout predictions prove true, the Iowa Republican caucus-going electorate will continue to be unrepresentative of the 645,000 registered Republicans or even of the 227,000 who voted in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary (in which Mr. Branstad, a previous four-term governor, defeated Christian conservative Bob Vander Plaats). That's the fault of those who don't bother to show up. But it's not a reason to take the winner on Jan. 3 as indicative of what's to come.
Every American should love Iowa (and all the other 49 states plus the District of Columbia and the territories, for that matter). But amid the pre-Jan. 3 buzz, it's worth remembering that Republicans in most states, for better or worse, haven't been doing much in the way of following Iowa's lead in selecting a GOP presidential nominee.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI