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The caucus that Carter built comes a cropper, leaving Democrats in a muddle

Featured photo originally taken for The Des Moines Register, 1976

By Tom Baxter

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter changed the way people run for president with his success in the Iowa Democratic Caucus, there wasn’t all this finickiness about what the results actually were.

On the night of the caucuses, the state Democratic Party set up a phone bank in Des Moines hotel for county chairs to call in their results, and charged reporters $10 to have a party staffer analyze, in general terms, the latest results from Council Bluffs and Cedar Rapids.

When all the votes were counted, Carter had fallen well short of what Sen. Edmund Muskie got in the first of these early caucus contests in 1972. Despite much more national media attention, turnout fell sharply, from 60,000 in 1972 to 38,500 in 1976.

But by the time the votes were counted, none of this mattered. The little-known Georgia governor had essentially won the Iowa caucus months before it was held, when he started to pop up on Face the Nation and other national news shows because of the buzz he had created, striding past cornfields and hog pens.

Carter finished a distant second to undecided in a race in which he was the only candidate to show up until the last minute, but in the process he had caught the essence of the modern, media-driven campaign. He understood how the living rooms of voters jammed with television cameras had replaced the smoke-filled rooms where races had been decided in the past.

By the next decade, the volunteer “peanut brigades” which had followed Carter to Iowa had been replaced by divisions and corps of professional political operatives, battling cornfield by cornfield. The caucus became so big, the even more meaningless straw poll which preceded it became a media event.

By this year, the caucus had become one of those staged public events, like the Grammys and the Academy Awards, which must constantly struggle to reassert their relevance. The political pageant which had been promoted as a way to make politicians pay more attention to Iowa finally broke down, spectacularly, under a microscopic scrutiny this horse-and-buggy system for choosing who got to go to the national convention was never intended to weather.

Everything which could go wrong seemed to. Even the Des Moines Register’s final poll had to be pulled the weekend before the caucus because of an omission on some polling questionnaires, a disaster which can’t be attributed to Democratic incompetence or a sketchy app. But it’s interesting to reflect that if everything had gone smoothly and all the votes had been counted by the end of the night last week, the caucus would still not have produced a clear frontrunner or winnowed out the field, the two functions the caucus is supposed to serve.

Given that, it might seem best just to call the thing a rough approximation and move on. Instead Democratic National Party chairman Tom Perez, after 100 percent of the vote had been reported, called for a “surgical recanvass” of the vote to make sure it was absolutely right. At that point, only days before the New Hampshire Primary, it’s hard to think of something a party leader could do that would be more beside the point.

The candidate who seems to have best captured the old Jimmy Carter spirit of showing a big grin and declaring victory was Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She didn’t shine in the caucus, finishing fifth, but she had the presence of mind to declare victory during the chaos, when no one noticed this, and quickly getting on a plane to New Hampshire. She has since surged in the polls.

Barring a surprisingly decisive result this week in New Hampshire, there seems to be a greater chance that the race for the Democratic nomination will stretch on past the gargantuan Super Tuesday primary on March 3. This means the votes Georgia Democrats cast in the primary on March 24 may actually have something to do with determining the nominee. Just a year ago, that might have seemed farfetched.

The only Democrat who has advertised in the Atlanta market so far is Michael Bloomberg. That’s true in most of the states which vote in March, providing a test of whether, with enough money, a candidate can skip Iowa altogether.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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