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How 50 Years of Data May Help Predict Party Nominations

It’s commonly said that winning the Iowa Caucuses can be a bad sign for the future of a presidential campaign. Although such predictions may be attributed to political folklore, it’s true that over the past two election cycles, the Republican primaries in Iowa have successfully predicted the eventual nominee zero percent of the time. However, New Hampshire's Republican primary winners went on to be the nominee 100 percent of the time in that same period. To take an objective look at whether such trends hold true over a longer period of time—and what dynamics may be at play—Analytics@American decided to dig in further.

Presidential primaries are a relatively new phenomenon. While some states began holding primaries much earlier, the binding primary process was not nationally implemented until 1968. We combed through Federal Election Commission data from every presidential primary since 1968 to see which states were most consistently predicting the eventual nominee. After eliminating the data from elections when an incumbent president was running for reelection, as they generally didn’t see any substantial competition, we were left with between seven and nine data points per state. While that may not be enough data to make the findings statistically significant, the data does paint an interesting picture. As the primary system evolves, we’ll have more and more of this data to analyze, and therefore, more accurate results.

In the two bar graphs below—one for the Democratic primaries and one for the Republican primaries—we compared the number of times a primary or caucus was held in the state and, of those, the number of times the winner became the presidential nominee for that party. Click on the image to zoom in and see where your state falls:

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What the Data Reveals

In our analysis of the data, the key question we wanted to answer related to determining which states are most reliably choosing the eventual nominee on each side of the isle. In addition to Super Tuesday, which was held on March 1, the early contests typically receive the most attention. According to the data, states like Iowa predict the correct eventual nominee 50 percent of the time for Democrats and 42.8 percent of the time for Republicans. Here is what the data revealed about other early primaries New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina:

  • Iowa—Democrats: 50%; Republicans: 42.86%
  • New Hampshire—Democrats: 44.44%; Republicans: 75%
  • Nevada—Democrats: 28.57%; Republicans: 71.43%
  • South Carolina—Democrats: 37.5%; Republicans: 71.43%
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