Woodruff: Why Iowa Is So Influential

BY Judy Woodruff  December 29, 2011 at 12:10 PM EDT

As I head to Iowa to cover my tenth (yes, tenth!) round of primary caucuses in the Hawkeye State, I’m every bit as excited as I was in late 1975, when I first flew to Des Moines to follow around a little-known former Georgia governor.

I had covered Jimmy Carter at Georgia’s Capitol for several years as a reporter for then-CBS affiliate, WAGA-TV, before going to work in early 1975 for NBC News. That year had been spent mostly covering what I liked to call “wildlife stories.” As a network newcomer, I was sent to report on a blackbird kill in Kentucky, a fire ant plague in South Georgia, an alligator farm in Florida’s Panhandle and an array of similar assignments. One exception was a trip to the Bahamas, where I covered the execution by hanging of an American accused of murder.

But I pestered my bosses at NBC until they agreed to let me do a story about the ambitious former peanut farmer from Georgia, whom I knew had surrounded himself with a smart, young, hyper-organized team focused on shocking the Democratic Party establishment. They saw that in the post-Watergate atmosphere, Carter’s progressive Southerner image gave him an outsider’s profile that the other Democratic contenders for the White House — most of them sitting members of Congress — didn’t have.

That, and Carter’s winning way with people. On that first trip to Iowa in October 1975, I followed the 51-year-old and his tiny entourage from house to house, from coffee shop to hardware store, and watched as he approached voters, struck up a conversation and afterwards often had them signed up to support him, or at least curious enough to take him seriously.

Unlike in the big cities, this was a place to interact one-on-one with voters — in this case, Midwesteners. To look them in eye, let them ask questions and take the measure of this stranger with a Southern accent. What many voters didn’t realize was that this was perhaps Carter’s 15th visit to the state that year, and he already had a sizable handful of influential Iowa Democrats ready to back him.

When the Caucuses were held the next month, Carter didn’t win; he came in second, with 27 percent of the vote after “Undecided,” at 37 percent. But because he was a new face, and at the top of the “decided” candidates, Carter, with just 10,764 votes, was catapulted out of Iowa with the momentum of a frontrunner.

The rest is history: He went on to win the presidency and the Iowa caucuses took on an importance they’ve held until today. Even though not every Iowa winner has duplicated Carter’s success or even won his party’s nomination.

In fact, there’s a vigorous debate these days about whether Iowa’s place in the nominating process is exaggerated, whether the state deserves to have the influence it does, given the unrepresentative nature of the its electorate.

Iowans won’t give up their special place in that process very easily. But if they ever do, they can look back with pride on their Caucus history, on their role, requiring the candidates to come down to earth, and be judged for how they relate to real people.