The Iowa caucuses aren't until January of next year, but the candidates are already making the rounds. John Edwards is virtually living there. But in spite of all the hype, only one candidate has ever parlayed a win in the Iowa caucuses into a win in November. And he didn't really win the caucuses, but came in second to Uncommitted. (I'm excluding incumbents here).
Until 1972 Iowa had virtually no influence on presidential nominations, especally on the Democratic side. But that year two things happened: Harold Hughes, the popular ex-governor and senator, was considering a run for the presidency, and the complicated McGovern Commission rules for selecting delegates went into effect. Iowa Democrats decided to hold their caucuses early that year to allow more time to work through the McGovern Commission rules, and to give Hughes a boost in his run for the White House.
Alas, Hughes bowed out of the race, saying he knew he could never push the button to fire our nuclear missles, even if the Soviets launched first. He endorsed Edmund Muskie, who won the caususes. George McGovern managed a strong showing.
It was not until four years later that the Iowa caucuses became the media spectacle they are today. I was living in Iowa City that year, and was working the precincts for Representative Morris K. (Mo) Udall of Arizona. He was one of about a dozen Democratic candidates in the Bicentennial Year. A bumper sticker that year, taking off on a McDonald's Big Mac commercial, read something like: "bayhbentsenbrowncarterchurchharrisjacksonsanfordshappshriverudallwallace...on a sesame seed bun!"
Birch Bayh of Indiana got into the race too late. Udall had the problem of telling too many jokes. He was a serious candidate, and his message of conservation was right for the time, but people didn't take him seriously because he couln't stop telling jokes. Instead, Iowans--even very liberal Iowans who had campaigned for Gene McCarthy in '68 and George McGovern in '72--seemed to be backing a one-term Georgia governor who had been a supporter of the Vietnam War.
I saw Jimmy Carter at a forum at the Iowa Memorial Union. I had a work-study job driving the campus bus (Cambus), and we drivers were in an adjacent room, signing up for shifts. While waiting for our names to be called, some of us looked in on the candidate. I thought he was boring. Of course, after seeing the trailer for the movie "Rocky," I said that the last thing this country needed or wanted was another fight film. My finger was not exactly on the national pulse that decade.
But I also remember walking around campus that winter, and seeing the chartered Greyhound buses parked by the Fieldhouse. The "H" in CHARTER had been taped over. Scores, perhaps hundreds of Georgians had left their subtropical world for the snows of Iowa. They did what the students for McCarthy had done in 1968: knock on doors and make personal contact with the voters. Even then, Carter was unable to win the caucuses. He came in second, to "Uncommitted." In the Iowa caucuses, you can beat somebody with nobody. And Carter's spin doctors (I'm not sure they used that term then, but there were people who did the same thing) persuaded the news media that coming in second to nobody was indeed a great victory. He went on to win the New Hampshire primary. In spite of the "Anybody but Carter" movement, in the West, where Frank Church and Jerry Brown beat the Georgian in several primaries, Carter's people held onto their lead and swept the 1976 convention.
Carter beat Gerald Ford in a very close election that year. Ford might very well have won, had it not been for Ronald Reagan, whose attacks on Ford during the Republican primaries weakened the president.
It was a bizarre campaign, with dozens of candidates, from Ronald Reagan and George Wallace on the right to Mo Udall and Fred Harris on the left. I had friends who wouldn't vote for Udall because he was a Mormon, and supported Harris, a populist from Oklahoma. Since then, the Iowa caucuses have been more important in winnowing out the weaker candidates or persuading the eventual winners to shake up their campaigns. But in 1976 the Iowa caucuses really did make a president.