The Iowa caucuses were a place where the improbable became possible

Reaching the end

It was an inauspicious debut, to say the least. In February 1975, a little-known governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter showed up in Des Moines, Iowa, to kick off an improbable campaign for president. His team rented a hotel ballroom and bought enough food for a crowd of 200 people. Three showed up.

So Carter started working the streets and stores. Gerald Rafshoon, who was his media adviser, recalled the other day a story that later became famous. “Carter walks into a barbershop and says, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president,’” Rafshoon told me. “And the barber said, ‘Yeah, the boys and I were just laughing about that.’”

From that modest start, however, something really big grew. Over the next year, Carter practically lived in Iowa and beat every other candidate in the caucuses that followed, propelling him to the White House. Now, nearly a half-century later, the Iowa launchpad is about to close down. With it will go the romance of the long-shot candidate who goes door to door in farm country to emerge from obscurity and reach the heights of American politics.

US President Joe BidenAt President Biden’s behest, the Democratic National Committee is moving around its presidential primary schedule to end Iowa’s marquee first-in-the-nation status. The party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee on Friday approved a schedule putting South Carolina first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada and then Georgia and Michigan, dropping Iowa from the early lineup. For the changes to be adopted, the full D.N.C. still must sign off early next year.

It is unclear whether Republicans will follow suit, but as my colleague Trip Gabriel wrote, “one of the most idiosyncratic and consequential pageants in American elections has come to its likely end.”

‘The Big Mo’

The Carter breakthrough in 1976 gave birth to generations of campaigns by little-known candidates hoping to replicate his stunning success. Iowa had never been a force in primary politics until then, but Carter’s team, which had noticed that George McGovern got a bounce out of a second-place showing in the state in 1972, decided to invest time and resources there.

It was a humbling experience. Just getting a reporter to show up for an event was a major victory. “Anyone with a scratchpad and a tape recorder would send us into ecstasy,” Carter recalled to Jonathan Alter for his biography “His Very Best.” But, from nowhere, Carter got 28 percent of the vote on Jan. 19, 1976, placing him second behind “uncommitted,” with 37 percent, but ahead of all the flesh-and-blood candidates. He went on to win the New Hampshire primary that came next.

Iowa was a proving ground for most candidates who followed. When George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan there in the 1980 Republican contest, he ecstatically declared that he had “the Big Mo,” or momentum, only to fall in New Hampshire afterward. In 2008, Barack Obama upset the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, demonstrating that a Black candidate could win in a predominantly white state and giving credibility to his underestimated campaign.

The winnowing

Iowa picked the ultimate Democratic nominee all but two times since that original 1976 contest, the exceptions being 1988, when Richard Gephardt won the caucuses only to lose the nomination to Michael Dukakis, and 1992, when Iowa’s own Senator Tom Harkin was running. On the Republican side, it has been less influential. Putting aside incumbents running for re-election, no Iowa winner has gone on to win the G.O.P. nomination since George W. Bush in 2000. But it has always played a role in winnowing the field.

One candidate who did not particularly like getting winnowed was a senator and later vice president named Joseph R. Biden Jr. In 2008, Biden drew less than 1 percent of the vote in Iowa and dropped out. In 2020, he finished in a humiliating fourth place when he was the presumed front-runner, though he ultimately bounced back.

US Presitent Joe Biden campaigning in Iowa

No surprise, then, that Biden might not feel too committed to Iowa’s claim to the first vote. South Carolina, his choice for opening contest in 2024, is where he turned around his 2020 campaign.

It did not help that the Iowa Democratic Party’s new app-based counting in 2020 was so botched that the winner did not emerge for days. (Under its complicated rules, Pete Buttigieg barely edged out Bernie Sanders for the most state delegate equivalents, the key metric.)

And so that is the end of the Jimmy Carter scenario, at least for the Democrats. “When we decided to do it, it was one of the smartest things we did,” Rafshoon told me. Now, that is just a story in the history books.

Related: The Democrats’ new primary calendar indicates that Biden plans to seek re-election.

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