We’re at a bit more than 28 months until the Iowa caucuses start voter participation in the 2016 presidential election. And despite fears from Iowa Republicans (expressed in a Jonathan Martin article in yesterday’s New York Times), you can expect the Hawkeye State to play pretty much the same role that it’s played in every nomination cycle since the 1970s.

The problem seems to be the confusion about what that role is. It’s never been true that winning Iowa guarantees the GOP nomination. Lots of Iowa losers, from Ronald Reagan in 1980 on, have been the eventual nominee — the list includes George H.W. Bush in 1988 as well as John McCain and Mitt Romney in the last two cycles.

It’s pretty simple: Iowa matters because it’s first. But the way that it’s worked, for both Democrats and Republicans, since the 1980s, is that party actors and the press interpret the results from Iowa and use that information to inform their next choices. Since everyone knows that conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, dominate the Republican Party in Iowa, everyone can adjust their expectations to account for that. Going first is a lot better than being back in the pack; but it doesn’t mean everything.

Rick Santorum, for one, draws the wrong conclusion: “You’re going to see conservatives probably not play as much in New Hampshire, and you’re going to see moderates not play here” in Iowa. All candidates will play expectation games so, yes, candidates not suited for Iowa will downplay the results there. But that doesn’t mean they can’t “play” there.

Skip Iowa, and a candidate takes himself or herself out of the conversation at a critical point in the campaign. Not only that, but if a viable candidate skips Iowa, it means that everyone else moves up a notch and also-rans win a new chance for media attention. After all, what’s certain is that someone is going to finish in the top three spots in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And it won’t be a candidate who ducks those states.

The early states constantly worry about their status because there’s no particular reason that Iowa and New Hampshire (and beyond them, Nevada and South Carolina) should be the ones that go first and enjoy the benefits of that position. But their place appears to be about as safe now as it’s ever been. They won’t determine the nomination, but they will play a major role in winnowing the field and giving important information to party actors in the other states.