Beyond Iowa: Bounce or Bust? All political eyes are focused on the Iowa caucuses, the first statewide test in this year's presidential race. A victory could boost a campaign's profile, while simultaneaously winnowing away the field of competitors. But doing well in Iowa also does not always foreshadow winning the nomination.
NPR logo Beyond Iowa: Bounce or Bust?

Beyond Iowa: Bounce or Bust?

Volunteers make phone calls urging residents to attend a caucus for Democratic presidential hopeful and former Sen. John Edwards at the United Steel Workers Local 164 in Des Moines, Iowa. Eric Thayer/Getty Images hide caption

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All eyes are on Iowa as the presidential candidates spend Wednesday crisscrossing the state, in a last-minute effort to win over caucus goers before the first-in-the-nation caucuses Thursday.

But what does an Iowa win mean for the candidates?

For starters, it could determine which candidates remain in the race and who does well in the New Hampshire primary five days later. In both 2000 and 2004, the Iowa results have foreshadowed both parties' nominations.

In the days immediately following Iowa and New Hampshire, many political observers predict that several candidates who perform worse than expected, or worse than they expected, could drop out of the race.

"There might be some people who placed all of their chips on Iowa," says independent political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "If you don't do well in Iowa, you can't raise the money down the road."

That's what happened to then-Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri in 2004. Once considered an Iowa front-runner, his fourth-place finish was the end of his campaign; he dropped out the following day.

Among the candidates who have put so much stock into Iowa is former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, whose campaign has spent a great deal of time, energy and campaign cash toward the state. Edwards has consistently polled as one of the top three Democrats in Iowa. A poor showing there is considered unlikely to prompt him to drop out of the race, but it would certainly take much of the momentum out of his campaign.

On the other hand, the Iowa caucuses could help even a lesser-known contender remain in the game. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has said that he hopes for a third- or fourth-place Iowa finish — just enough momentum to survive until the Western state primaries — Jan. 19 in Nevada and Feb. 5 in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico — where Richardson believes his campaign could succeed.

But it's not just the candidates' ability to raise money or their profiles that's at stake.

The caucuses will also determine who gets key media coverage ahead of the New Hampshire vote: To participate in Saturday's back-to-back, primetime Democratic and Republican debates in Manchester, N.H. — sponsored by ABC News, WMUR-TV and Facebook — candidates have to finish in the top four slots in Iowa, or show polling numbers of at least 5 percent in New Hampshire or national polls. The same criteria is used in Sunday's Republican-only debate in New Hampshire, sponsored by Fox.

The outcome of the Iowa caucuses also can help shape the narrative of the presidential campaign, says Rothenberg — from the ways the candidates are perceived to who's ahead in the polls, with winners gaining momentum.

And momentum is what all the candidates hope for as Iowa leads into the New Hampshire primary. Granite State voters can be swayed by the Iowa results, as former presidential candidate Howard Dean learned.

Dean was viewed as the New Hampshire primary front-runner in 2004 — that is, until he finished third in the Iowa caucus, with 18 percent of the vote. His stock plummeted in New Hampshire, finishing second in the primary with 26 percent to John Kerry's 38 percent. (Kerry, of course, went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination.)

Of course, a surprisingly strong showing in an early-voting primary is what every candidate hopes for. Take Democrat Gary Hart, for example. In the 1984 election, the then-Colorado senator shocked the political establishment when he beat former Vice President Walter Mondale by 10 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary. Overnight, the victory transformed Hart from an unknown candidate to the main challenger to Mondale, who went on to win the Democratic nomination.

Although the campaigning is frenzied now, by mid-February, roughly 60 percent of the country's population will have voted in primaries or caucuses.

With additional reporting by NPR's David Greene.