But losing in Iowa doesn’t always spell disaster for those who dream of occupying the Oval Office. Over the years, several candidates who fell short in the Iowa caucuses went on to win their party’s nomination.
One very vocal Democrat who lost in Iowa never went on to win much, but at least he became an enduring political meme.
Ahead of the 2020 Iowa caucuses, we present an incomplete list of the contest’s most notable losers.
Bill Clinton (D), 1992
Who won: Tom Harkin
You know who had a terrible Iowa caucuses night? The 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton. As the governor of Arkansas, Clinton had been seen as a viable candidate, but he came in fourth with a measly 2.8 percent, according to the Des Moines Register. Iowa’s native son, Sen. Tom Harkin, won the state’s Democratic caucuses handily, but Clinton wasn’t finished yet.
He continued to battle it out in the primaries, finishing “comfortably in second place” in New Hampshire behind former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, the New York Times reported, leaving him in “a position to take his resilient candidacy on to the string of primaries in his native South.”
It wasn’t quite that easy. Clinton’s campaign faced significant controversies involving allegations of an extramarital affair and marijuana use, tarnishing his personal image, but he nevertheless pressed on through a tough primary process and ultimately won the nomination.
Clinton defeated Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush for the presidency that November.
Donald Trump (R), 2016
Who won: Ted Cruz
Trump came out of left field in 2015 and completely upended the Republican primary. He came up short in the Iowa caucuses, finishing behind Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.); but Trump’s tone was anything but defeated.
“On June 16, when I started this journey, there were 17 candidates,” Trump told his supporters that night. “I was told by everybody: ‘Do not go to Iowa. You could never finish even in the top 10.' We finished second. … We will go on to get the Republican nomination, and we will go on to beat Hillary or Bernie or whoever they throw up there.”
Spoiler alert: He was right.
Hillary Clinton (D), 2008
Who won: Barack Obama
The first time Clinton ran for president, things didn’t go well for her in Iowa. Then a senator from New York, she was facing a much younger colleague from Illinois in 2008, Barack Obama. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, providing a boost to his candidacy that took him all the way to the White House. Clinton actually came in third in the 2008 caucuses, just behind John Edwards.
The loss was a blow to Clinton, who told supporters that night that “I am so ready for the rest of this campaign and I am so ready to lead.” As her supporters chanted “Hillary! Hillary!” she promised to “take this enthusiasm and go right to New Hampshire.” But Clinton did not win the nomination, as Democrats instead chose Obama to make a history-making run for president.
When Obama won the 2008 general election, he appointed Clinton as his secretary of state.
Eight years later in 2016, Clinton was back in Iowa, seemingly in a far stronger position, though she only narrowly eked out a win against yet another underdog …
Bernie Sanders (I), 2016
Who won: Hillary Clinton
Sanders, the Vermont independent, shook up the 2016 Democratic nominating contest when he jumped in to challenge Clinton, then seen as the strongest contender for the nomination.
On election night, he came within a hair of tying Clinton.
“I think the people of Iowa have sent a very profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment, and by the way, to the media establishment,” he told supporters on caucus night.
Sanders’s performance in Iowa showed he was a serious challenger, and the two continued to battle through the primaries. Though he ultimately lost the Democratic nomination, Sanders is back for another bout in Iowa this year and has been polling in the top tier of candidates heading into the race. Will he prevail this time? We’ll know soon enough.
Howard Dean (D), 2004
Who won: John F. Kerry
Dean blazed into the 2004 Democratic primaries like a rocket, and then flamed out in spectacular fashion after his infamous Iowa scream. After placing third in Iowa — not necessarily a bad place to be — Dean riled up his supporters with an optimistic speech.
“Not only are we going to New Hampshire, we’re going to South Carolina!” he said, his voice steadily rising. “And Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico!
“We’re going to California and Texas and New York! And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan! And then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House.”
He punctuated his speech with a soaring, high-pitched shriek, screaming: “Yeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
In retrospect, Dean’s outburst seems pretty tame; but at the time, it was considered a major gaffe and seemed to doom his candidacy. Dean bowed out of the race after the Wisconsin primary in mid-February, after his campaign manager in a New York Times article offered Dean’s assistance to other candidates if he didn’t win, suggesting the campaign itself wasn’t confident. It might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the scream arguably put it in that fragile position to begin with.
Dean’s legacy lives on: The “Dean Scream” became an enduring meme, marking one of the first true viral moments in American politics.
John F. Kerry won Iowa and went on to win the nomination, but he was ultimately defeated by the Republican incumbent president, George W. Bush.
Mitt Romney (R), 2008 and 2012
Who won: Mike Huckabee (2008), Rick Santorum (2012)
Pour one out for the former Massachusetts governor, who lost Iowa not once but twice to insurgent conservative candidates.
When all the votes were finally counted from the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, Romney found he had lost to former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania by a mere 34 votes. Santorum’s team announced that “the narrative that Governor Romney and the media have been touting of ‘inevitability’ has been destroyed. Conservatives can now see and believe they don’t have to settle for Romney, the Establishment’s moderate candidate.”
But choose Romney, voters inevitably did. He successfully clinched the Republican nomination in 2012 but was defeated by Obama, who was running for reelection.
Romney has staged a political comeback as a senator representing Utah and is back in the headlines as one of the key Republican senators to watch during President Trump’s impeachment trial.
John McCain (R), 2000 and 2008
Who won: George W. Bush (2000), Mike Huckabee (2008)
What do McCain and Romney have in common? They both lost in Iowa twice, and they were both defeated by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008. McCain and Romney eventually went on to win their party’s nomination, though both men eventually lost the general election to Obama.
George H.W. Bush (R), 1988
Who won: Bob Dole
If there’s any candidate who illustrates perfectly that the Iowa caucuses do not always pick a winner, it’s George H.W. Bush.
Bush actually won the 1980 Iowa Republican caucuses, beating a guy named Ronald Reagan 31 percent to 29 percent. As we all know, Reagan won that election, and Bush became his vice prescient.
When it was time for Bush to run to replace his boss in 1988, he lost to Sen. Bob Dole in Iowa but ascended to the Oval Office the following January.
Despite winning Iowa in 1992 because he ran unopposed, Bush’s primaries election got off to a rocky start. He won the New Hampshire primary by defeating conservative commentator Pat Buchanan — but not by as much as you’d expect a sitting present to defeat his challengers. The results were a “jarring political message” to Bush that “showed the power of a ‘send a message’ campaign against him in times of economic distress,” the New York Times reported.
Though Bush ultimately survived the primary, he was ousted from the White House by another notable Iowa loser, Bill Clinton.