There is a long history of surprise candidates doing well in the Iowa caucuses and defeating the “inevitable” nominees. And this year is no exception. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, or if it’s Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, next week, Iowans will get to have the first say. How did this all start? How did the Iowa caucus—a strange election-year event where a small number of Iowans gather in homes, schools, and other civic buildings to announce their support for their candidates—become such a major political touchstone? With a mere 52 delegates, Iowa has nevertheless become a force in presidential campaigns over the last four decades. The caucus, which started in the 1840s, had traditionally fallen in the middle of campaign season. But in 1972, state reforms modernized the process and moved the date from May 20 to January 24, making it the first contest in the election. That’s when a campaign worker named Gary Hart convinced Democrat George McGovern to take the state seriously. But where McGovern took Iowa seriously, it was Jimmy Carter who revolutionized the role that the Hawkeye State would play in presidential politics. 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 stepping-stone for gaining national prominence. 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.
In late 1975, almost no one thought that Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, could ever be the Democratic nominee. There were already 11 Democrats running for office and some other prominent figures waiting to announce. Most of them were senators, like Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Birch Bayh, with national name recognition. When Carter announced that he was going to run, even his hometown newspaper, The Atlanta Constitution (now The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), joked in a headline: “Jimmy Who?”
But what Carter and his advisers understood from day one was that the old rules of campaigning no longer applied. The power of the party bosses, who used to decide on the candidate during the convention, had been destroyed as a result of reforms that were pushed by McGovern after the disastrous 1968 convention. Now, voters in each party held the balance of power through their pick at the primaries and caucuses. There was also more money available for non-establishment candidates. As a result of the Watergate campaign-finance reforms, any candidate could qualify for public financing as long as they raised at least $5,000 from private donors in a minimum of 20 states. Carter had worked hard to make this happen, selling T-shirts and peanuts while organizing rock concerts with bands like the Allman Brothers to encourage small donations to his candidacy. Most important, Carter was a relentless campaigner. After announcing his candidacy on December 12, 1974, Carter campaigned for 260 days in 40 states and 250 cities—all before any votes were taken.