MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Iowa caucuses, considered the official kickoff for the 2020 presidential election, are Feb. 3. But despite all the attention it gets, Iowa is not a predictor of who will win the White House.

For most presidential candidates, Iowa is an unforgiving place. In fact, most Iowa caucus winners don’t get their party’s nomination. Just look at the last three contested Republican caucus winners:

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  • 2016: Ted Cruz won Iowa, not Donald Trump
  • 2012: Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney
  • 2008: Mike Huckabee, not John McCain

Iowa can be a catapult for some, like the relatively-unknown Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama in 2008.

But it can be a dream crusher for others, like Vermont Democratic Governor Howard Dean, who performed better than expected — but whose post-caucus speech famously included an excited yelp that came to be known as “The Dean Scream.”

So, why is this windswept prairie state that is not demographically representative of American voters so important? Here’s why:

  • It’s the first actual voting for president.
  • It’s a test of candidate skills and staying power.
  • It’s specifically designed to take power from political insiders and give it to real people.

Go back to 1968. Democrats were horrified by the violence outside their party’s national convention in Chicago, and the backroom maneuvering that gave Hubert Humphrey the nomination.

So, the party created a new way to pick delegates, starting with the first-in-the-nation contest: Iowa.

Jimmy Carter proved that a little-known candidate without money or national visibility could win it all.

But Iowans are tough on candidates, even future presidents. Here’s how Iowa treated future presidents in the Iowa caucus:

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  • Donald Trump came in second.
  • President George H W Bush finished third.
  • Ronald Reagan came in second.
  • Bill Clinton finished fourth.

Four Minnesotans rolled the dice in Iowa. Walter Mondale won the caucus in 1984. Michelle Bachmann’s and Tim Pawlenty’s 2008 campaigns died in the Hawkeye State. And this year, Amy Klobuchar.

The bottom line? In nearly half a century, only three contested Iowa caucus winners ever became President:

  • Jimmy Carter — 1976
  • George W. Bush — 2000
  • Barack Obama — 2008

Here are some of the sources we used for this Reality Check:

Iowa Caucus History Caucus Totals:





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