116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The long-shot presidential candidate arrived in Le Mars, 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. Before speaking, he stopped by a local radio station for an interview.
"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, courting voters with one-on-one conversations and collecting contacts for a grassroots organization.
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. Republicans, on the other hand, 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, the aftershocks of the withdrawal from Vietnam and 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 Carter was running for the White House because he couldn't win a second term as governor.
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 Iowa 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. "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," Flansburg wrote.
Carter carefully modulated his pitch to voters, Times columnist William Safire wrote. "His style is low-key, what Madison Avenue likes to call 'sincere,' and his message is strictly middle-of-the-road," Safire wrote after seeing Carter campaign in Cedar Rapids.
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 the general election, Ford eked out a win in Iowa, but Carter narrowly defeated the incumbent president nationwide.
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 of course has been successful in claiming the White House. But the legacy of Carter's 1976 Iowa victory lives on, even if the Democratic caucuses lose their first-in-the-nation status.
"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."