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If you want to be president, this is how well you've had to do in Iowa

The Iowa caucus Monday probably won't tell us who will win either party's nomination. But after a crowded primary season, especially for Republicans, the caucus will help us figure out who doesn't have a serious chance.

In other words, we'll see who does really badly in Iowa — and who might not stand a chance in the rest of the election cycle.

Only one eventual presidential nominee has finished worse than third in the Iowa caucus since 1972, when it became the kickoff event to the primary season.

This data suggests that while contenders don't have to win the Iowa caucus to become the party nominee, they have historically all been among the highest-placing candidates.

Those third-place finishers had unique circumstances

Looking a bit more closely at those who finished in third or worse, you start to see that many of them were in politically unique situations — ones that allowed them a bit more wiggle room later in the political calendar.

  • In 1988, George H.W. Bush finished third after winning the Iowa caucus in 1980. If Iowa is about figuring out who is a viable candidate, being the sitting vice president, like Bush was, gives you a nice buffer.
  • Also in 1988, Michael Dukakis finished third but still earned 22 percent of delegates, which was less than 10 points behind winner Dick Gephardt, at 31 percent.
  • In 1992, Democratic candidates didn't campaign in Iowa because longtime Sen. Tom Harkin was in the race. So Bill Clinton's third-place finish wasn't very meaningful for the rest of the primary.
  • In 2008, John McCain's fourth-place finish was acceptable, considering he didn't campaign early in Iowa. Mike Huckabee did get a lift from his victory, especially since he didn't spend nearly as much as second-place finisher Mitt Romney.

So in short, if you finish third, it has to be a respectably close finish — or there better be a good reason.