Remember when Rick Santorum almost won the Republican presidential primary? Yeah, neither does anybody else. The former Pennsylvania senator placed first in the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and then put up a long challenge to eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Now he's relegated to the Republican undercard debate with Mike Huckabee — who also won the Iowa caucuses, in 2008.
Although the first-to-caucus state occupies a lot of space in the political imagination, it is actually a pretty terrible predictor of who is going to be each party's nominee. Since the Democratic Party made Iowa the first stop in its primary in 1972, only five victors there became the eventual nominee. For Republicans, the record is even worse: Only three of their Iowa caucus winners have ever been crowned the nominee.
The problem is, Iowa's population is not all that representative of America's. Just 3 million people, the state's small population is very white and very rural. As Kathy O'Bradovich, political columnist for the Des Moines Register, put it to NPR, "the really important thing to remember about Iowa is not that it's first because it's important. Iowa is important because it's first."
So without further ado, here's a look back at a few of the victors who prove the point:
Edmund Muskie, 1972
Former Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie fared better than any other Democratic candidate in this Iowa caucus, but he didn't exactly dominate. More voted "uncommited" than voted for the technically first-place winner. Eventual nominee George McGovern came in third.
George H.W. Bush, 1980
George H.W. Bush narrowly beat Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa Caucus, 33,530 votes to 31,348, but it wasn't enough to secure Bush the presidency that time. Though Bush went on to win the Republican presidential nomination eight years later, he didn't even win Iowa in that primary. (See below.)
Dick Gephardt, 1988
The Democratic Party's choice for the 1988 Iowa caucus was Dick Gephardt. The party's eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, came in third. Gephardt went on to lose the New Hampshire primary, and just seven weeks after the Iowa caucuses, his campaign ran out of money and was forced to fold.
Bob Dole, 1988
Iowa didn't predict either the Democratic or the Republican nominee in 1988. Then-Kansas Sen. Bob Dole won the popular vote in the caucus, but it was third-place George H.W. Bush, trailing more than 20,000 votes in Iowa, who won the ultimate prize. Bush regained his early loss to Dole by underscoring the Kansas senator's inconsistencies with the nickname "Senator Straddle."
Tom Harkin, 1992
Eventual two-term president and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton only won 2.8 percent of the vote in the 1992 Iowa Democratic caucuses. With an impressive 76.3 percent of the vote, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin ran away with the caucuses that year. However, Harkin was so confident in the media attention and financial support that his Iowa success would give him that he neglected to pay attention to the New Hampshire primary. Harkin only placed fourth there, dooming his campaign.
Mike Huckabee, 2008
The former Arkansas governor broke late to win a surprising victory in Iowa after dwelling near the bottom of the pack for nearly nine months. Huckabee won 34 percent of the vote, compared to Mitt Romney's 25 percent and eventual nominee John McCain's 13 percent, by attracting a large swath of the Hawkeye State's evangelical voters.
Rick Santorum, 2012
Republican candidate Rick Santorum's Iowa primary win took over two weeks to be declared. The former Pennsylvania senator beat eventual party nominee Mitt Romney by an incredibly narrow margin of 34 votes, reversing initial announcements that Romney had won by an 8-vote margin. Months after that slim victory, Santorum dropped out of the race, lagging far behind Romney in delegates.