Iowa, New Hampshire, and the Crystal Ball

A quick pass through past election-year results provides some interesting insights for today's first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primaries.

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A quick pass through past election-year results provides some interesting insights for today's first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primaries.

1. At first glance, New Hampshire voters appear to be a relatively good predictor of each party's eventual nominee:

-- On the Republican side, the winner of the Granite State has become the party's nominee in seven of the past nine elections. The two exceptions are recent: Sen. John McCain won New Hampshire in 2000 but lost the nomination to George W. Bush; Pat Buchanan won in 1996 but lost the nomination to Sen. Bob Dole.

-- On the Democratic side, the winner here has been the party's nominee in six of the past nine elections. The three exceptions: Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992, Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, and Sen. Edmund Muskie in 1972.

2. Interestingly, the prediction rates decline dramatically when excluding election years in which an incumbent was running:

-- For Republicans, the winner of New Hampshire was the party's nominee in just two of the four elections that had no Republican incumbent: Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George Bush in 1988.

-- For Democrats, the winner of New Hampshire was the party's nominee in four of the seven elections with no Democratic incumbent. They were Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

3. Further number-crunching reveals some rather ominous findings for campaigns of both parties:

-- For Republicans, the party's eventual nominee has always won either Iowa or New Hampshire or both. In other words, no Republican candidate in recent history has dropped both Iowa and New Hampshire and still won the party's nomination. So, if McCain wins New Hampshire as predicted, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani would have to make history to win the nomination.

-- For Democrats, a different rule holds: If the same candidate wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, then that candidate has always become the party's nominee (examples: Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000, Carter in 1980). That means that if Obama wins New Hampshire tonight, history would suggest that he will be the party's nominee. If Obama loses New Hampshire, his shot at the nomination falls sharply: Of the three election years when the Democratic winner of Iowa has lost New Hampshire (1984, 1988, 1992), only once has the candidate become the nominee (1984).

Of course, a number of caveats apply:

* Results in Iowa are often skewed by the presence of midwesterners on the ticket (examples: Dick Gephardt of Missouri in 1988, home-stater Tom Harkin in 1992). The same is true of New Hampshire and New Englanders (Tsongas was from Massachusetts, Muskie from Maine).

* Wacky things happen all the time. Tonight, for instance, Mike Huckabee is likely to make history by becoming the first Republican Iowa caucus winner to not place in the top two in New Hampshire. So it goes.

—Kent Garber