In “Vote of Confidence”, Carter Whips Kennedy in Iowa

Published 3:46 pm Tuesday, January 28, 2020

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By:  D. Jason Berggren

Note: D. Jason Berggren is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Southwestern State University. This is the second article in the Carter 1980 look-back series.

When announced his candidacy, Georgia governor Jimmy Carter was a presidential longshot for the 1976 Democratic nomination. That perception began to change after coming first among the candidates in the Iowa Caucus. It was his first victory on his way to the White House.

Normally, presidents are the undisputed favorite to win their party’s nomination for a second term. That was not the case for President Carter. In terms of job approval, he was unpopular, and polls showed he was a clear underdog for the 1980 Democratic nomination in the months leading up to his announcement for re-election.

But things can change quickly and unexpectedly in politics. With the crises in Iran and Afghanistan, the President experienced a significant rally in public support. The actions he took against the Soviet Union for its Afghan invasion gave him, according to an Americus Times-Recorder editorial (Feb. 8), a “new look” that transformed him into a strong and decisive president. In terms of politics, his electoral fortunes became brighter. As he pledged in the summer of 1979 by using some colorful words, Carter was ready to whip the backside of his leading opponent, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

On January 21, 1979, President Carter won a tremendous victory in the Iowa Caucus over Kennedy, the one-time frontrunner. He said it was “a vote of confidence from Iowa Democrats”. More importantly, it was his first victory on the way to being re-nominated by the Democratic Party. The Americus Times-Recorder observed that local supporters of the President were “jubilant and pleased” (Jan. 24).

In 1980, the Iowa Democratic Party reported the statewide results in estimated delegates earned or in delegate equivalents. It did not use a statewide popular vote. Of the delegates, Carter won with 59 percent. The Massachusetts Senator trailed far behind with 31 percent. Delegates who were “uncommitted” represented almost 10 percent.

Support in the delegate tally for the other major candidate in the Democratic race, California Governor Jerry Brown, was essentially undetectable. The Governor blamed the canceled Jan. 7 presidential debate for the dismal showing and accused the President of hiding out in the White House and using the international crises as an excuse for not facing the voters or answering for his presidential decisions.

Carter won all across the Hawkeye State. He won in the urban, populous counties. He carried Polk County, site of the state capital Des Moines, with 52 percent. He won majorities in Linn (Cedar Rapids), Scott (Davenport), and Black Hawk (Waterloo) counties.  He won in the rural areas. The President prevailed in the academic centers, too, winning in Johnson and Story counties, where the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are respectively located.

Though he skipped personal campaigning in the state and refused to debate his Democratic challengers, President Carter was delighted with not only the win, but the magnitude of the win. He clearly exceeded media expectations. Iowa was thus an actual and virtual win for him.

In his private diary, Carter wrote: “A half hour after the caucuses commenced in Iowa, networks announced that we would win by two to one, much better than we ever anticipated, and undoubtedly a severe blow to the Kennedy campaign. We carried all ninety-nine counties except Page, and farmers three to one.”

In the days before the Iowa vote, Carter’s campaign activities were virtually limited to making personal phone calls to supporters in Iowa and to receiving Iowa journalists at the White House to take their questions. In one example of his campaign activity, according to his daily diary schedule for Wednesday, Jan. 16, Carter made a series of telephone calls from the second-floor residence of the White House. He spoke that night with more than twenty-five Iowans representing fifteen of the state’s ninety-nine counties.

The most visible of Carter’s pre-Iowa activities was a single appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the day before the caucus.

First Lady Rosalynn Carter was particularly excited with the win. This is how Time magazine (Feb. 4) depicted her election night reaction: “Carter’s victory was sweet for Rosalynn, who had gamely stumped the frozen state while the President stayed in Washington. The First Lady called her staff together to gloat over the defeat of Kennedy, a man she resents.”

Known as the Peanut Brigade, the dedication of area locals and volunteers from around Georgia paid off again. From Jan. 12 until caucus night, they worked “at top speed and efficiency” at the Carter-Mondale state headquarters in Des Moines making telephone contacts with voters to encourage them to participate in the Monday evening precinct caucuses.

According to one report published in the Americus Times-Recorder (Jan. 15), “The brigade was 30 strong on arrival.” They were welcomed by fellow Georgian Max Cleland, a Carter appointee who headed the Veterans Administration. In another report (Jan. 21), Tim Kraft, Carter’s national campaign manager, designated the Peanut Brigade as the “secret weapon” in Iowa. He may have been right as caucus turnout was much higher in 1980 than it was in 1976.

The Americus Times-Recorder published a series of articles about their “people-to-people” activities: “Brigade Prepares Campaign” (Jan. 10), “New Recruits Needed for Carter Campaign” (Jan. 10), “Busy in Campaign, Local Brigadiers in Iowa” (Jan. 15), “Sumter Citizens in Iowa, Brigadiers Campaign Hard” (Jan. 18), and “Called Secret Weapon, Brigadiers’ Work Winding Down” (Jan. 21).

It was reported that the responses from voters were generally favorable for Carter. Dolores Capitan, in a Jan. 18 article for the Americus Times-Recorder, wrote, “Betty Pope said many she telephoned praised the president’s leadership qualities.” Brigadiers also campaigned at shopping centers and distributed literature “extolling the president’s record in the White House.” They returned to Sumter County on Jan. 22.

There was much to celebrate after the caucus, but the celebrations were not comparable to that of 1976. With an incumbent operating in crisis management, the 1980 campaign was effectively run from Washington. Consequently, Plains and the train depot were not the campaign symbols they had been in 1976. As Maxine Reese explained to the Associated Press (Jan. 9), the President will “not be coming home after the primaries, so it will be different.”

On caucus night, Carter was in Washington. He delivered remarks before the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters, a prominent evangelical Christian organization. In fact, according to the daily diary schedule, his speech given before “approximately 3,500 guests” and “broadcast live” on religious television. The President then returned to the White House where spent the rest of the day and presumably watched caucus returns and news coverage. He talked that night by phone with his son Chip, key staffers Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, and Robert Strauss, the chair of the Carter-Mondale reelection campaign committee.

In 1980, the Republican Party did not use the estimated delegate count as its method of determining a winner. Instead, it used the conventional statewide popular vote. In an upset, George H.W. Bush, the former CIA director, pulled off a narrow victory over Ronald Reagan, the party’s frontrunner, 32 – 30 percent. A win in the New Hampshire Primary, Bush buoyantly declared, “there’ll be absolutely no stopping me.” Below his picture, the Americus Times-Recorder identified the Republican winner as “Happy Bush” on its Jan. 22 front page.

Bush, hoping it would do for him what it did for Carter in 1976, was convinced Iowa had provided the momentum, or the “Big Mo”, going forward. What it certainly had done was catapult Bush into the national spotlight and into the position as Reagan’s principal opponent in a field of seven major candidates.

Reagan, the former two-term governor of California, dismissed the caucus loss as a meaningless, unrepresentative “straw vote”. He vowed to step up his game in New Hampshire.

Republican Senate minority leader, Howard Baker of Tennessee, came in third in the caucus with 15 percent. The other major candidates were in single digits: John Connally (9 percent), Phil Crane (7 percent), John Anderson (4 percent), and Bob Dole (1 percent).

After Iowa, the electoral situation for Kennedy grew desperate. His campaign prioritized Iowa, looking for an early knockout of the President. Even with some polls showing Carter had moved ahead, staffers were still confident Kennedy had the better campaign organization and stronger ground support that would result in  either a “strong win” or at the very least it would be close. He failed miserably. Losing by almost thirty points in the delegate count was a humiliation. As Time magazine (Feb. 4) described it, “the most glamourous politician in the U.S. and who had seemed invincible … suffered the kind of setback he had never known or perhaps ever expected.”

Next up on the election calendar were two events in Kennedy’s regional backyard: the Maine Caucus on Feb. 10 and the New Hampshire Primary on Feb. 26. When asked if he had to win both New England contests, he said, “Yes.”

The Americus Times-Recorder documented the post-Iowa state of the Kennedy campaign. One headline, “Not Quitting”, captured Kennedy’s determination to press on with his candidacy despite the Iowa loss (Jan. 25). Another read, “Of Faltering Campaign, Kennedy Plans Reassessment” (Jan. 26).

According to Bob Shrum, a Kennedy advisor and speechwriter, the Senator was frustrated by Carter’s surge in popularity. He did not consider Carter a “real Democrat” and contended that the President was exploiting events in Iran and Afghanistan for “election-driven” purposes.

Similarly, Kennedy faulted Carter for the “renewed cold war with Moscow”. Indeed, Shrum wrote in his memoirs, No Excuses, that the Senator believed “Carter was beating the drums of a phony war with the Soviets” in order to improve his political standing. He criticized the recommendation to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics, the call for more U.S. defense spending and increased military aid to Pakistan, and the proposal to reintroduce the selective service program in the event a military draft had to be resuscitated.

In what became known as the Carter Doctrine, the President announced in his 1980 State of the Union Address that he was prepared to use “any means necessary, including military force” to protect U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Kennedy asserted that the President’s rhetoric was “hyperbole”.

Vice President Walter Mondale, quoted by Time (Jan. 21), said “Carter put country first” while Kennedy embraced the “politics of the moment”.

Unquestionably, Carter pivoted and toughened his rhetoric and policy position toward the Soviet Union in January 1980. The Americus Times-Recorder recognized this change in its front-page headline for Jan. 9: “Retaliation for ‘Greatest Threat to Peace Since WWII’, Carter Begins Measures Against Russia”.

In his budget request to the Congress, Carter said the increases in defense spending were warranted because of “Soviet aggression in Afghanistan” and the serious threat it posed to the wider Middle East, specifically the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. The headlines on the Jan. 28 front page for the Americus Times-Recorder were “Strengthening Defense to Contain Soviet Aggression, Military Spending at New High in Budget” and “Domestic Spending Cut, Military Raised, Carter Sends Budget of $616 Billion to Congress.”

Kennedy condemned the grain embargo Carter imposed on the Soviets. He thought this would hurt Carter in an agricultural state like Iowa, but it ultimately did not. Voters for the most part appeared to accept the administration’s stated purpose that the embargo was necessary to punish the Soviets for its invasion of Afghanistan. As Mrs. Carter explained, “Jimmy is going to make absolutely sure the farmers aren’t going to suffer. We want the Russians to suffer.”

Kennedy’s involvement in the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident was considered a drag on his electoral performance, as well. He attempted to “limit the political fall-out of Chappaquiddick” in the coming days and weeks by publicly addressing the matter before Maine and New Hampshire. When compared with Carter, Kennedy’s personal character did not match up well.

For their part, the Carter re-election team continued to play as if they were still behind. To keep expectations low, they emphasized the difficulty in besting Kennedy in the Northeast. Even so, the Carter campaign vowed to hit New England hard and force him to expend resources there to defend it. In doing so, even if he won both states, Kennedy probably would not have the financial wherewithal to successfully compete in the many state contests ahead. The campaign had very little cash on-hand and donations were slowed by the Iowa outcome.

Immediately after Iowa, the Peanut Brigade began preparations for travel to New Hampshire, site of the “first-in-the nation” presidential primary. They were optimistic about the chance to replicate the 1976 New Hampshire effort and provide Carter another major victory.

Local organizer, John Pope, told the Americus Times-Recorder (Jan. 23) that a Delta flight for volunteers, leaving Atlanta, was booked for Feb. 20 – 27. Looking for extra assistance, he said, “We worked long hours in Iowa, but are ready to go again and want anyone who supports the President for re-election to join us.”