Iowa Caucus History: Jimmy Carter Connects with Iowans in 1976

In early 1975, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter began campaigning in Iowa. He spent a great deal of time visiting with people in small towns and at local events. Although he came in second in the 1976 Iowa caucuses to “uncommitted”, the media picked up on the fact that he did better than expected, and Carter used this momentum to eventually win the nomination. His playbook would be used and adapted by both parties in future campaigns.

Transcript

In early 1975, a George peanut farmer turned Governor, and his close staff, began testing the waters in Iowa.

Bender: "They came out and they had a lunch, I think it was at the Savory, with me and state chairman Tom Whitney and Ham Jordan and Jimmy Carter, and we basically told them, you're not really going to sell here. I don't think a southern Governor, nah. We were wrong."

Citizen: "I'm afraid I'm prejudice because you're a farmer and I am a farmer."

Jimmy Carter: "That's the kind of prejudice I like."

Tim Kraft: "In 1975 and '76 was retail with a capital R. He could talk to people about any sort of crops, weather, machinery, the hardships, the value of a family farm. He was good at that and so was his wife."

David Yepsen was a young cub reporter tracking one of his first political assignments at the Des Moines Register.

Yepsen: "I remember being assigned to cover him at a press conference on Sunday afternoon at the Hotel Fort Des Moines and I was the only reporter that showed up. Sunday afternoon is not a great time to be doing media. And so I had a wonderful time just chatting with him. He was eating grapes and just he and I were just sitting there on a couple of chairs just talking and it's a lot different than what it is now, a lot smaller."

Announcer: "Iowa Press, Sunday, March 2nd with guest Jimmy Carter, former Governor of Georgia."

Carter: "I think to be disassociated with the horrible bureaucratic mess that exists in Washington right now is a political advantage. I think to have had a broad range of experience professionally is an advantage. I'm a farmer. I'm a full-time farmer. If I can exemplify what the American people would like to see in their president, then I'll be elected. If I can't meet those high demands, and I hope they are high, I don't deserve to be president."

Judy Woodruff: "He was not afraid to go in and walk right up to people who had never set eyes on him, had no clue who he was, put out his hand and say, hi, I'm Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer from Georgia, former Governor and I'm running for president and I'm going to be elected president. He had a lot of self-confidence."

Tim Kraft ran Carter's campaign efforts in Iowa, leaning heavily on the southern Governor's interpersonal skills amid a cash-strapped long-shot candidacy.

Kraft: "When I first went to Iowa I took a quick stock of what we would need in terms of headquarters, phone lines, postage, staff, transportation, etcetera, and I submitted a budget to Atlanta and they said, we haven't got that kind of money. So I had to argue with the financial people in Atlanta to secure an initial budget of $18,020."

As the campaign entered the fall of 1975, Carter's organization was gaining steam and taking part in an Iowa Democratic Party tradition.

News Reporter: "The occasion was the State Democratic Party's Annual Get-a-Bucket-of-Chicken Election Year Show and Tell, the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner. The event attracted seven presidential candidates, three correspondents from the major networks, and four national political reporters."

Frank Reynolds: "We grasp at straws in this business, you know, and if you can detect the slightest straw in the wind or any kind of reaction to a candidate it can be helpful in the very early stages."

Carter: "It would suit me fine if all the candidates ended all the primaries and presented themselves to the voters."

Woodruff: "When I had first covered Jimmy Carter in Iowa when he was traveling around campaigning in the fall of '75, it was October, there were no other press around. There might have been a couple of print reporters around."

Carter: "Looks like we've got a lot of good journalists here today that you'd be glad to meet. Johnny Apple from the New York Times..."

Woodruff: "But by the time we came back for the caucuses, believe it or not, there was Iowa press, there was national press there, because by that point people were connecting the dots with what McGovern, George McGovern had done four years earlier."

Carter: "Our goal in Iowa is to come in first. That's what we want to do. I'm not sure we'll do it."

News Reporter: "On the democratic side, state chairman Tom Whitney says a heavier than expected turnout is delaying things."

Tom Whitney: "But the results are slow. We've had the largest caucuses we've ever held or at least it appears that way. So they're going to come in a little slower than we thought."

Caucus Worker: "This is your first batch? Okay. We'll hold yours."

Caucus Worker: "What if you want to check them over?"

At Iowa Democratic Party headquarters on caucus night, volunteers were still struggling to understand the delegate calculations, while media reporters turned to the resident expert Johnny Apple of the New York Times.

R.W. "Johnny" Apple: "And we've got about five percent of the democrats and Carter is wiping them out except for uncommitted."

R.W. "Johnny" Apple: "Political reporters, whether they're covering a race for Mayor of Dubuque or President of the United States, are interested in who is going to win. It is true that I think that I understood how the system worked better than most of the reporters who were here. I happen to be fascinated with such things so I made it my business beforehand to understand it. It is also true that a lot of them came and looked at my lead. I don't know what they did afterwards because I didn't go and look at theirs."

Woodruff: "He didn't win the Iowa caucuses, he came in second. He was almost ten points behind uncommitted. But the fact that he did better than expected, the fact that the media was looking at him, that is what made all the difference. The media played, the national media played a big role."

Carter had taken McGovern's model and maximized it all the way to the White House. His playbook would be picked up and tested on the opposite side of the political aisle.

Excerpt from "Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency," Iowa PBS, 2016

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