Marco Rubio came in third in the Iowa caucuses yesterday. The media immediately declared this a victory. The Florida senator did, after all, outperform what polls predicted — but when your goal is winning a party's nomination, third place is not the best place to be.
In fact, of the 16 contested primaries since 1972, only four candidates finished third or worse and went on to win the nomination. This isn't to say that a first-place finish guarantees success — look, for example, at Iowa winner Rick Santorum in 2012 — but that the odds are generally stacked against those who don't win one of the top two spots.
Two nominees had good excuses
There are four presidential nominees who have taken third or worse in Iowa: Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, and John McCain in 2008. Bush and Clinton obviously went on to become president.
Two of those eventual nominees had good excuses for their poor performance.
In 1992, Iowa was completely uncontested because longtime Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was in the race; Clinton never really had a shot.
And in 2008, John McCain — the eventual nominee — didn't focus much on Iowa. This lowered expectations even though he was probably the national frontrunner, according to polls.
So that only leaves two instances where a candidate finished third or worse and didn't have a real excuse.
Two nominees who didn't have an excuse but came back
The worst third-place finish was in 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush finished third in Iowa, despite having won the caucuses in 1980 the last time he ran. But with strong name recognition, an endorsement from New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, and well-timed attacks on his primary opponent Bob Dole, Bush was able to pull out a win in New Hampshire — and take control of the race by late February.
That same year, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis finished third in the Democratic Iowa caucuses, but the margin of victory was small enough that he was able to rebound and win New Hampshire. Still, it wasn't until April that he actually took some control of the race, with strong competition from both Al Gore and Jesse Jackson.
In the end, both Bush and Dukakis were at times seen as frontrunners, while Rubio has consistently trailed in the polls for the past eight months, despite media predictions of a surge.
If Rubio wins the nomination, it'll be unprecedented
We talk a lot about the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, but that's because historically they have been decent harbingers of nationwide success. Both Bush and Dukakis were able to come back from a third-place Iowa finish and win the New Hampshire primary, and no candidate has ever finished worse than second in both Iowa and New Hampshire and gone on to win.
The poll average from HuffPollster shows Donald Trump with a massive lead in New Hampshire, while Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Rubio are fighting for second. It's too soon to measure how the Iowa caucus results will change this algebra, but we know it's unlikely Rubio will win New Hampshire, which gives him a narrow path to the nomination.
That said, if we've learned anything about this GOP primary season, it's that it is different from any we've seen before — and that it'll probably drag on longer than your usual primary, which is likely a good thing if Rubio wants voters to forget about his third-place ribbons.