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.