Jimmy Carter Campaigns at Iowa State Fair

With Barack Obama braying about his growing strength in Iowa and the pundits at ABC News quickly labeling Hillary Clinton a political “has been,” I thought I would do some research to dispel the notion that the Iowa caucuses had any real relevance — at least to the Democrats.

In other words, even if Obama won in Iowa, would it really have an impact on who became the Democratic nominee?

The short answer is: it could matter a lot — enough to end Hillary’s chances.

What I discovered is that in six out of the last nine Iowa caucuses, the candidate Iowans selected became the eventual Democratic nominee. That’s a 66% success rate. Take out the two incumbent races — Carter in 1980 and Clinton in 1996 — that’s still four out of seven, or a 57% batting average. That’s an impressive percentage — and certainly worrisome if you are Hillary Clinton.

The main statistical outliers were Gephardt in 1988 and Harkin in 1992. In an excellent summary of caucus history, David Yepsen, a political columnist for the Des Moines Register, offers an explanation for the Gephart-Harken choices, as well as some other important patterns in caucus voting:

One pattern that appears to be developing in the Iowa caucuses is a preference for Midwestern, or at least rural-oriented candidates. George McGovern of South Dakota, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, Richard Gephardt of Missouri have all done well in Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Harken, of course, is from Iowa and won big there with 77% percent of the vote. Ultimately, he placed fourth in New Hampshire and his candidacy ended.

So, here’s who won, starting with the 1972 caucus:

1972 – Ed Muskie
1976 – Jimmy Carter
1980 – Jimmy Carter (incumbent)
1984 – Walter Mondale
1988 – Dick Gephardt
1992 – Tom Harkin
1996 – Bill Clinton (incumbent)
2000 – Al Gore
2004 – John Kerry

(For complete statistics on previous Iowa caucuses, click here.)

Fifty days from the actual voting, Hillary has some hard work to do in Iowa if she wants to end up on the winner’s list for 2008. Keeping in mind Yepsen’s observation that Iowans tend to vote for Midwesterners, Obama is from Illinois. There are also two important precedents of the eventual winner in Iowa taking down the front-runner: Underdog Jimmy Carter in 1976 and John Kerry in 2004, when he pricked front-runner Howard Dean into a yelp heard ’round the world.

How do things stand right now? According to ABC News:

The new ABC News/Washington Post poll has Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., up on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in Iowa — really in a statistical tie in the state where they could be playing for all the marbles. It’s Obama 30, Clinton 26, and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., 22 — setting up a three-way scramble for the top spot in a state that’s notoriously difficult to call in advance.

My concern about Hillary’s campaign — certainly here in New Hampshire where I can feel the campaign’s lethargy — and now in Iowa, is that a sense of entitlement among her staff and political “endorsers,” can lose this for her.

The one true thing we can say about running for and winning the Presidency: you really gotta want it. Does Hillary?