But be forewarned: The interpretation of those early votes may come as a surprise to you. That’s because “winning” in each of those states is not a straightforward reflection of who had the most votes. “Winning” in these states is about expectations. And expectations are set by the media and polls, not voters.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that the presidential nomination process is littered with winners who were actually losers and losers who were actually winners.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was the winner and loser of the New Hampshire primary. He beat the anti-Vietnam War Sen. Eugene McCarthy by seven points. But the fact that McCarthy came so close to a sitting president meant that there were substantial fissures in the Democratic Party — fissures that would be fought out on the streets of Chicago that summer during the tumultuous Democratic National Convention. The New Hampshire primary was held on March 12, 1968, and had a dramatic effect on the race. On March 31, the president told the nation that he would not run for reelection.
In 1976, an obscure Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter came in second in the Iowa caucuses with 27 percent of the vote. But the first-place finisher was “uncommitted” — a.k.a. none of the above — which came in with 37 percent of the vote. Because “uncommitted” lacked a platform, a campaign and, most important, a physical being, Carter gathered all the attention and all the momentum from his second-place finish and went on to win the New Hampshire primary, the nomination and eventually the presidency.
Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado was, in 1984, a young upstart who dared to challenge former vice president and Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale in the Iowa caucuses. Mondale won a whopping 48 percent of the delegates chosen on caucus night, and Hart won 16 percent. But everyone expected Mondale to win in a landslide. His inability to win a majority in the caucuses gave Hart much-coveted momentum. He rode that wave to New Hampshire, where he beat Mondale in the primary — the second big upset in the expectations game (even as it was his first actual victory). Although Mondale eventually won the nomination, he had to fight it out with Hart all the way to California.
The year 1992 was another big one for losers winning. Going into the New Hampshire primary, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton faced a sex scandal, allegations that he had dodged the draft and an admission that he had tried marijuana but “didn’t inhale.” Tagged by the Republicans as a “draft-dodging, dope-smoking womanizer,” Clinton kept on campaigning when others might well have thrown in the towel. On primary day, he lost to Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Tsongas won 33 percent of the vote; Clinton, 24.7 percent. And yet Clinton was the clear winner of that contest. On that night, he earned the name “Comeback Kid” and went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
Robert J. Dole, the Senate majority leader and a respected GOP elder, was the clear front-runner for the 1996 Republican nomination. He was expected to win the Iowa caucuses — not only because he was the front-runner, but because he hailed from the nearby state of Kansas. And so, when he came in at only 26 percent — to 23 percent for conservative commentator Pat Buchanan — he was damaged enough that, like front-runner Mondale before him, he lost the following New Hampshire primary and had to fight it out for several months to win the nomination.
And so we look forward to the 2016 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Both parties have had a national front-runner for months now — Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and Donald Trump on the Republican side. Expectations are high for both of them, which means that even if they win their respective contests, a less-than-convincing showing could damage them in subsequent contests.
In Iowa, Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) have been close for at least a month. If neither finishes in the top two spots, it will be a big story. And if someone else finishes second, even if it is a distant second, that person will be considered a big winner. On the Republican side, there is a great longing for an “establishment” candidate whom the party can unite around to beat the outsider candidates Trump and Cruz. So watch for even a third-place finisher to "win” in Iowa — especially if their vote is close to the vote of the first two and manages to consolidate many of the voters for the lower-tier candidates.
For Hillary Clinton, the expectations game in Iowa will play out against the backdrop of 2008, when once again, she was the front-runner and lost to a fairly unknown senator named Barack Obama. Iowa was a particularly big loss back then because Clinton didn’t just fail to win the state as the consensus front-runner; she placed third. If she loses to Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) in Iowa and again in New Hampshire, she will have to rely on the South Carolina “firewall” to put her candidacy back on track in time for Super Tuesday.
But there she will be in good company. In my book “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates It’s Presidential Candidates,” I recount the history of the South Carolina firewall. In 1980, Ronald Reagan suffered a surprise loss to George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses. Although Reagan won New Hampshire, he lost three of the first five contests to Bush. But then came the first early South Carolina primary, the creation of the Republican Party chairman and a brash young Reagan operative named Lee Atwater, who would become famous as Bush’s campaign manager. Created by the Republicans to stop an insurgent candidate and reestablish the front-runner’s momentum after a loss in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina might just do for Clinton in 2016 what it did for Reagan in 1980 — put her back on track to win the nomination and the presidency.
In the next few weeks, the campaigns will turn themselves into pretzels trying to set (and often, lower) expectations and interpret results. They know more than anyone how, in these early, closely watched contests, winners can lose and losers can win.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution and the founding director of its Center for Effective Management. She is the author of "Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates."