Former President Jimmy Carter made it famous. I had the privilege of interviewing him about his experience. He went into Iowa with a 2% name recognition.
He won the Jefferson-Jackson Day straw poll in 1975, which earned him the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines. Then Carter won the Iowa caucus in 1976, launching him to the White House.
From then on it became the favored path to the presidency. If you ignored it, like Rudolph Giuliani did and like Mike Bloomberg is doing now, you couldn’t win the nomination.
On the other hand, if you won it, there was no guarantee that it would work for you like it did for Jimmy Carter. Other successful politicians stumbled in Iowa, but that proved to not be fatal.
In 1979, I was invited out to Pacific Palisades to have dinner with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. It was the week he announced for the presidency. At the time, I was being asked to author his campaign biography.
“Well,” I said when called my agent, Jed Mattes, that I had “permission to write the Reagan book.”
Jed called me back, he concluded that no one in New York thought he was going to make it through the Iowa Caucus. I countered, “Well I think he is beating Ambassador Bush.”
“No, no, no,” Mattes argued, “You don’t understand me. No one in New York thinks he is going to live through the Iowa Caucus. He is too old to be president.”
So I wrote the only available biography of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It sold 400,000 books.
As it turned out, Reagan lost the Iowa Caucus in 1980 but went on to win the White House anyway.
On Feb. 8, 1988, Bob Dole won the Iowa Caucus. Pat Robertson, a televangelist came in second. George H.W. Bush, the sitting vice president came in third. Most observers thought Bush’s career was finished.
I went to Iowa with his son, George W. Bush. The whole Bush dynasty was almost stillborn that night. Later that evening, I walked with George W. to his room, read out-loud a little bit from the Bible for him, then he rolled over in his bed and fell asleep.
Then I went to the bar and found Dorothy Bush, the vice president’s daughter. She was stunned. She asked, “Is there any hope?” The story was that her dad, the vice president, was going to retire from politics and run the Purolator Company. I said, “There’s still a chance in New Hampshire next week.”
And so, George H.W. Bush won Iowa in 1980 but lost to Reagan for the nomination and lost Iowa in 1988 but won the presidency.
Iowa can mess with your mind.
For one final story. When I interviewed Eric Trump for my book “Inside Trump’s White House” he told me a great story about the Iowa caucuses in 2016. The Trumps were new to politics. They knew the business world but the presidential game was at times baffling to them.
Eric was tapped as a surrogate speaker the night of the Caucus and was driven by staffers to a big gymnasium where he would have to talk about his father. On the way Eric blurted out, “Hey guys, what is a ‘caucus’?”
I thought that was great. The Trump’s loved their country and wanted to make a difference but they were certainly not lifelong politicians trying to get power.
It was all new. Eric’s question is a good one. What is a “caucus”?
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