The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iowa caucuses could lose their top status. Jimmy Carter put them on the map.

An obscure former governor’s victory in 1976 captured the media’s attention and put him on the road to the White House

Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, center, reaches into a crowd gathered on the Van Ryswyk farm to launch his campaign in Des Moines on Aug. 24, 1976. Billed as a “Lemonade and Peanuts" affair, complete with balloons, signs, and crowds, Carter touched off his two-day stay in Iowa with the fundraiser. (AP) (AP)
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The long-shot presidential candidate arrived in Le Mars, Iowa, brimming with a confidence about his prospects few others shared.

It was Feb. 26, 1975, almost a year before Iowa Democrats would gather in caucuses to make their choice for president in the election of 1976. But Jimmy Carter, the former Democratic governor of Georgia with the toothy grin and earnest demeanor, was already on the campaign trail.

He came to Le Mars to appear at a dinner honoring the lone Democratic official in heavily Republican Plymouth County in the northwestern corner of the state. Before speaking at the event, he stopped by the local radio station for an interview.

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“I probably suspected that I would never hear of Jimmy Carter again,” news director Larry Schmitz told Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times. “I know that when he walked out the door, my manager came and said, ‘What did you think?’ And I said, ‘the guy is a nobody and will probably fall by the wayside like a lot of others, but I don’t think he’s convinced of that.' ”

Eleven months later, Iowa Democrats validated Carter’s self-confidence. While more Iowans favored uncommitted delegates than any single candidate, Carter rolled up a 2-to-1 margin over his closest challenger, Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana. The outcome provided Carter with what Jules Witcover of The Washington Post called “early momentum in the winnowing-out process of 1976 presidential hopefuls” — and it put the Iowa caucuses on the political map.

“Carter turned the Iowa caucus into a major event in 1976 and thereby demonstrated how an upstart campaign could turn a victory in this small state into a steppingstone for gaining national prominence,” Julian E. Zelizer wrote in the Atlantic in 2016. “When people talk about Carter’s legacy by focusing on his failed presidency or his transformative post-presidency, they forget one of his most lasting actions — his 1976 campaign, which all started in small, rural Iowa.”

Four years after Iowa initially held the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses to little fanfare, Carter made the state an essential destination for candidates with an old-fashioned brand of retail politics, carefully courting voters with one-on-one conversations and collecting contacts to build a grass-roots organization. Organizer Tim Kraft put together a statewide organization that recruited local Carter supporters who could talk to their neighbors about the candidate, Zelizer wrote.

According to Witcover, Carter and aide Jody Powell toured Iowa “like a couple of Dixie traveling salesmen in strange territory set on making a big score.”

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Today, Iowa’s status as the first-in-the-nation presidential battleground for Democrats is in jeopardy as party officials appear increasingly resolved to open the 2024 presidential campaign elsewhere. No decision has been made, but a leaked draft proposal calls for putting states with primaries and a diverse electorate at the front of the calendar. Republicans look content to continue opening their presidential primary season in the Hawkeye State, according to the Washington Examiner.

For Democrats, “Iowa is a target for a variety of reasons,” Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post. “Its population is largely White and therefore does not reflect the party’s diversity. It is seen as largely rural in makeup, at a time when the party’s voters are housed increasingly in cities and populous suburbs. Its contest is a set of caucuses, an arcane system whose rules few understand and that disenfranchises voters.”

Forty-seven years ago, as Carter campaigned in Iowa, questions about the caucuses and the state’s demographics loomed far in the future. Voters were preoccupied by the specter of Watergate — heightened by President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard M. Nixon — the aftershocks of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and rising inflation.

The tumult produced unusually competitive races for both parties’ presidential nominations. Ford faced a challenge from Ronald Reagan for the Republican nod, while a host of Democrats — including Bayh, liberal Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, foreign policy hawk Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington and pro-segregation former Alabama governor George Wallace — vied to lead the Democratic ticket.

When Carter announced his presidential candidacy in 1974, skepticism ran high — particularly in his home state. Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy argued that Carter was running for the White House because he couldn’t win a second term as governor.

“The state needed a good belly laugh, and Carter obliged by announcing he would run for president,” Murphy wrote.

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Carter and a handful of aides spent the next 18 months working to prove the skeptics wrong.

At the heart of Carter’s campaign was an unorthodox message, described in a front-page story in the Des Moines Register about a morning meeting between Carter and 20 veteran Iowa Democrats in Sioux City. Carter assured his listeners, “If you support me, I’ll never make you ashamed. … You’ll never be disappointed. I have nothing to conceal. I’ll never tell a lie.”

Delivered with what veteran reporter James Flansburg described as Carter’s “quiet, modulated southern burr,” the assertion raised eyebrows among some of the breakfasting politicos. But it made an impression, Flansburg wrote. “If there weren’t believers, there were certainly those who were persuaded on the basis of one speech to seriously consider the candidacy of Carter. Indeed, seldom has a candidate without a fabled name made such a fast and favorable impression on Iowans.”

That was confirmed in October by a Des Moines Register poll of Democrats attending the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner that showed Carter well ahead of the Democratic field. The poll lent credibility to a candidate whose “Presidential aspirations have been considered laughable by many Washington experts,” R.W. Apple wrote in the Times, but it did not come as a surprise to those on the ground in Iowa.

Democrats interviewed by Apple pointed to Carter’s background as a farmer and his status as a Washington outsider to explain his support. But the veteran political reporter believed Carter’s personable demeanor also played a significant role. “Iowans like courtesy and the personal touch, and the visitor hears countless tales about the Georgian’s understanding of that fact,” Apple wrote.

Carter carefully modulated his pitch to voters, Times columnist William Safire wrote in November. “His style is low-key, what Madison Avenue likes to call ‘sincere,’ and his message is strictly middle-of-the-road,” Safire wrote after watching a Carter campaign appearance in Cedar Rapids.

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The campaign worked just as hard to win the media narrative as it did to collect caucus votes. “Carter believed that if he could influence media coverage of his candidacy through a victory in Iowa, he would be treated as a serious candidate, making it easier for voters in subsequent contests, like New Hampshire, to vote for him,” Zelizer wrote.

A measure of the campaign’s success in getting the media’s attention came on caucus night. Four years earlier, during the state’s first modern presidential caucuses, a handful of reporters from the wire services, big Eastern newspapers and the Register covered the event, according to author John C. Skipper. In 1976, the scene was dramatically different, Skipper wrote. “Instead of a couple of tables set up in the basement of Democratic headquarters, the setting now was the Des Moines Hilton Hotel where close to 200 radio, television and newspaper reporters gathered to find out the results.”

Carter’s showing in Iowa propelled him to the top of the Democratic field and paved the way for victory in New Hampshire. In Florida, Carter told Democrats he looked forward to the day that the Sunshine State would “no longer be referred to as ‘Wallace country,’ ” according to the Times’s James T. Wooten, and he defeated the Alabama governor who had won the primary four years earlier. Carter turned back a late challenge from California Gov. Jerry Brown to win the Democratic nomination.

In the general election, Ford eked out a win in Iowa, but Carter narrowly defeated the incumbent president nationwide. Four years later, Ronald Reagan carried Iowa by a comfortable margin on his way to a lopsided victory over Carter.

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Media interest in Iowa’s status as a significant battleground intensified over the years. By 1988, the influx of reporters from newspapers, radio and TV was so large that Washington Post reporters T.R. Reid and Lloyd Grove calculated a “hype index” based on the ratio of media personnel to the public present at campaign events. (A Jack Kemp campaign appearance attended by 103 members of the media and 32 from the public had a “hype index” of 3.1.) In 2020, the media center in Des Moines prepared to accommodate more than 2,000 journalists, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Victories in Iowa by George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008 set them up for the White House, but not every caucus winner has been as successful. In 1980, George H.W. Bush defeated Reagan before the former California governor recovered in New Hampshire to win the Republican nomination and the White House. In 1988, Democrat Richard Gephardt of Missouri won the Democratic caucuses but lost the nomination to Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts. That same year, Republican caucus-goers picked Kansas Sen. Robert Dole over Pat Robertson and the elder Bush, who went on to claim the party’s nomination and defeat Dukakis in November. Iowa Republicans backed Mike Huckabee in 2008, and narrowly favored Rick Santorum in 2012 and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016. None went on to win their party’s nomination. In 2020, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders nearly tied for first place in Iowa, while Joe Biden, the eventual Democratic nominee, finished fourth.

The legacy of Carter’s 1976 Iowa victory lives on, even if the caucuses lose their first-in-the-nation status on the Democratic primary calendar. “The kind of politics that worked for Carter in 1976 now has an impact en masse throughout the country," Zelizer wrote. "Today, every candidate lives in the world that Carter helped to create that January in Iowa.“