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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’76: Carter Writes the Playbook

This is the second installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.

Every four years at the Des Moines Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, presidential candidates flock to the city to beg votes of the who’s who of the Iowa Democratic Party. Amidst the sounds of clattering silverware and the rustling of hundreds of restless people, candidates give short speeches in which they try desperately to break from the crowd and win over the hearts of the electorate. The dinner is heavily attended by the public and the media, and the length and volume of applause given to each candidate is thought to represent an informal poll of voter preference in the early stages of the race. In other words, a lot is at stake.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter recognized the importance of this event, but knew he would likely be overshadowed by some of the more famous faces on the stage. So he planned ahead, organizing a plan to bus in dozens of his supporters from out of town. Although his fledgling campaign was unable to afford the price of a meal ticket for everyone, he made sure to get them seats amongst the overflow crowd, and he had a pair of staffers walk through the event hall handing out campaign buttons to anyone who would take them. The sheer saturation of Carter supporters in the audience meant that he got a generous share of the applause that evening. And most importantly, whenever the camera panned to the crowd, television audiences saw rows of happy Carter supporters, buttons pinned prominently to their shirts. Carter may not have had the votes quite yet, but he knew how to play the game.

After eight years of Republican occupancy of the White House, what the Democratic party needed more than anything in 1976 was a president. They received just that in the form of a dark horse, no-name governor from Georgia. Jimmy Carter was the first true success story of the Iowa caucuses. Four years earlier, George McGovern may have proven that Iowa presented a path to victory, but the momentum he won early on only carried him as far as the nomination, and he lost badly to Richard Nixon in the general election. It was only then that Iowa realized just how valuable its first in the nation slot was in the Presidential nomination contests. In 1976, the state decided to hold its caucuses first again, this time on January 19th.

Almost a year out from the caucuses, Jimmy Carter became the first candidate to start campaigning in Iowa. Carter entered the race as a classic dark horse candidate; a charismatic yet little-known Georgian with executive experience and an accent to boot, he spent the entirety of his campaign leading up to the Iowa caucus clamoring for name recognition and a place amongst the front runners. Carter and his wife Rosalynn left personal touches everywhere they campaigned. They spent over 200 days in the state, driving from small town to small city, sleeping in motels or in supporters’ homes and covering as much ground as they could. If no one was home when he went canvassing, Carter would leave handwritten notes on the front door for when they returned. Rosalynn approached local radio stations to schedule spots for her husband to talk about his campaign. Carter and his team saw the McGovern strategy of grassroots, retail politics and ran with it, perfecting the system that candidates would strive to emulate cycle after cycle.

Carter’s background leaves no question as to why he was able to gain so much individual support among Iowans. His experience as a peanut farmer allowed him to talk shop with the many agricultural workers in Iowa. His time in the Navy connected him with veterans. Even his political experience, limited to four years in the Georgia state senate and a single term as governor of the same state, left him knowledgeable about politics without looking like an insider complicit in the illegal actions of the Nixon administration. His hurdle was to figure out how to take all of the personal connections and support he was gaining on the campaign trail in Iowa and turn it into national attention.

Although few outside of Georgia knew Carter by name, his competition was composed of many well-loved Senators and seasoned candidates who had bigger support systems they could use to grow their campaigns. Senator Birch Bayh could also play well to a base of rural farmers and was performing at the top of the heap in many national polls. Fred Harris, former chair of the DNC, was using his insider knowledge of caucus rules and a big, clunky campaign bus to attract voters. Senator Mo Udall played as a liberal alternative to a more moderate crowd of candidates. Sargent Shriver had married into the Kennedy dynasty and was the last-minute vice-presidential nominee alongside George McGovern in 1972. Even Eugene McCarthy was back on the scene for another shot at the presidency.

On the Republican side, the party was left with an incumbent candidate yet again. Gerald Ford, the only president in American history who was not elected by the people on a national ticket, was presented with the very difficult task of representing the Republican party shortly following the Watergate scandal. Post-Watergate, people cared about integrity and a simple, transparent style of governance. Americans wanted to wash their hands of the Nixon administration, and Ford was seemingly embezzled in the controversy; his decision to pardon Nixon in 1974 was particularly harmful to his political future. Even more unusual was the fact that he had competition, in the form of a very recognizable governor from the largest state in the union: Ronald Reagan. After a narrow and drawn-out battle, Ford won the nomination, although Reagan gained enough experience and support to come back with a vengeance during the 1980 race. Ford did not campaign at all in Iowa before the caucuses.

Carter’s success was more than just an example of the little guy making it big through hard work and a toothy grin. No matter how much time or effort he sunk into Iowa leading up to the caucuses, without the media, his efforts would have been fruitless. Prominent New York Times political reporter R. W. Apple had taken an interest in Carter’s campaign and the Iowa caucuses as a whole, and his reporting of Carter’s surprise strength in early polls and his eventual victory in the caucus gave him the boost he needed to appeal to the whole country rather than a subset of Midwestern Democrats. The night of the caucuses, Carter flew to New York City so he would be ready to go on the morning talk shows after the results came in. He correctly predicted that the media would suddenly be anxious to talk to him after months of denying his requests for an interview. After Iowa, people saw him as a contender.

Jimmy Carter’s Iowa campaign strategy holds up as a model for how modern candidates approach the Iowa Caucuses. Although seldom replicated, his climb from relative obscurity to the highest office in the nation is the boost that campaigns are after when they spend so much time in our small, rural state. Through retail politics, media support, and a little charm, Carter was able to put Iowa on the map and transformed it from a flyover state into one of the most unique and intriguing political environments in the world.


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