This was Iowa caucus night
back in the mid-1970s. And these are members of
the national media covering the voting. It was so unusual to see
national media in Iowa back then that people
actually paid to watch them. “The Democratic Party
charged $15 a head for people to watch the media
watch the people.” See, in previous
years, Iowa’s caucuses just hadn’t attracted
national attention. “There are 3,000
frozen media members in downtown Des Moines …” Just over a decade later,
Iowa is the place to be. “… It’s Iowa caucus night. Let’s party.” [shouting] The caucuses are
now a key part of the presidential
election cycle. “Bush, 57.” They’re the first
chance to see what kind of support
candidates have among voters. So how did we get here, from
caucuses that only Iowans seem to care about to
the national spectacle we see today? Turns out, a lot of
it was accidental. For most of Iowa’s
history, its caucuses were dominated by
political insiders. There was little
room for input from rank-and-file members. An historian writing in
the 1940s put it like this: “The larger number of
party voters were deprived of a voice.” But the old ways start
coming to an end in 1968. The country’s in turmoil, and
so is the Democratic Party, mostly over the Vietnam War
and civil rights. Basically, the
party establishment wants to handle
things one way, and many rank-and-file
members have other ideas. All this comes to a head
as the Democrats hold their national convention. Protesters gather outside. So do police. Inside, the mood
is also tense. All this division leads
the Democratic Party to rethink the nomination
rules to include the voices of all party
members in the process. This is how we
come to the moment when Iowa becomes key
to electing a president, basically by accident. First up, how
Iowa became first to hold a
presidential contest. It starts with new rules
to give everyday members more of a say. So by 1972, winning Iowa
now involves four stages. Iowans choose their
top candidates, first at the precinct level. These are the caucuses at
the heart of this story. But technically,
there’s further voting at the county,
congressional district and state levels. The new rules make things
a lot more inclusive, but this creates new delays. Committees need to be
formed, and everyone needs to have up-to-date
party materials. The problem is, the
state party only has an old mimeograph machine
to make copies of all this. It’s really slow. So because of an old machine
and a bunch of new logistics, the party decides it
needs at least a month between each step
to do it all. The national convention
is set for early July, so you’d think that the
state-level convention would happen about a month
before, in June. Except, the party can’t
find a venue that’s available to hold everyone. That little detail
helps push everything earlier in a chain reaction. See what’s going on here? The precinct caucuses now have
to happen early in the year. The party chooses
a date that makes Iowa’s the first
presidential contest. The New Hampshire primary
has been the first kickoff contest since the 1950s,
but Iowa Democrats aren’t necessarily looking
for national attention. They just think it’ll
be fun to be first. Still, attention
is what they get. The story begins
with George McGovern. “People didn’t know much
about the Iowa caucuses. As a matter of fact,
there wasn’t a great deal of interest in them.” He’s the long-shot candidate. He’s been at the bottom
of national polls. “He often walked the
campaign trail alone, little known by the voters.” Most people think this
guy, Edmund Muskie, is going to be the
big winner in Iowa. “That challenge is great,
but we can meet it.” Then comes caucus night. As the people vote,
state party officials gather at their headquarters. Richard Bender is one of them. “And we had about 10 or 12
press people show up. These press people included
one guy, Johnny Apple.” Johnny Apple, a 37-year-old
political correspondent for The New York Times. Iowa’s Democrats aren’t ready
to publicize the results right away. They hadn’t expected
much demand. According to Bender,
only Johnny Apple asked for them that night. “I happen to be fascinated
with such things, so I made it my business,
beforehand, to understand it.” Bender sets up a phone tree
to gather results from across the state. He adds them up himself
with a calculator. And the next day,
Apple’s article helps swing the national
spotlight onto the caucuses. He’s got quite
the story to tell. Muskie’s won, but just barely. Not the runaway win
people were expecting. And McGovern comes
in a strong second. No one expected that, either. The reformed caucus rules
helped a long-shot candidate rise to the top. And because this is happening
so early in the election now, and because Apple’s
article gives the results national coverage,
something else happens. “That got picked up by some
of the national news shows.” “The Democratic front-runner
has been damaged in Iowa.” “And wow, all of
a sudden, we were being paid attention to.” McGovern eventually wins
the Democratic nomination. “I accept your nomination with
a full and grateful heart.” He loses the
presidential election, but some haven’t forgotten
what those early caucuses did for McGovern, including
Georgia’s former governor, Jimmy Carter. Three years later … “There was a major headline
on the editorial page of the Atlanta Constitution that said, ‘Jimmy Carter’s
running for what?’ [laughter] And the ‘What’
was about this big. [applause] I’m running for president.” … Carter heads to Iowa before
any other Democratic candidate. He’s got no national profile. “He didn’t have hordes of
press following him around. It was a very
lonely campaign.” Washington pundits call
his candidacy laughable. “I remember when we
couldn’t find a microphone.” “Jimmy Who?” becomes
a catchphrase. Carter’s own
campaign film plays it up. “Jimmy who?” “I don’t know who he is.” But as long as Iowans come
to know him and like him, Carter bets that
the media will start paying attention,
just like with McGovern four years earlier. Carter campaigns as
locally as possible. One day, he learns that he’s
been invited on a local TV show. “And I said, that is great. I can’t believe it. I said, ‘What are
we going to do?’ He said, ‘Do you have
any favorite recipes?’ And I said, ‘What do
you mean, recipes?’ He said, ‘Well, this
is a cooking show.’ Well, they put a white apron
on me and a chef’s hat. That was my only access
to TV when I first began to campaign in Iowa.” His opponents
are in Iowa, too, but they spend far
less time there. Carter wins. “Surprisingly top of
the class after his win in a somewhat obscure race
in Iowa against the others.” “You can’t tell until we
go to the other 49 states, but it’s encouraging for us.” A year later … “I, Jimmy Carter,
do solemnly swear —” … he becomes the
39th president. Now we need to head to 1980
because we haven’t talked about the Republicans yet. Here’s the state’s Republican
chairman that year. He’s asked why Iowa’s caucuses
have become so important. “I think because Jimmy Carter
got his start in Iowa in 1976.” The Republicans in Iowa are
keen to copy the Democrat’s success, and one
candidate in particular gets inspired by Carter’s
underdog win: George H.W. Bush. He’s running against
Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and others, and he’s near the
bottom of the pack. “Your name isn’t really
a household word, but Ronald Reagan can —” But Bush goes big in Iowa. He gets a surprise win. It’s a far cry from
just months before. “I was an asterisk
in those days. And my feelings got hurt. And now, I’m no longer
an asterisk.” Bush is now the
third underdog to get a boost from the caucuses. The next morning on CBS,
he distills the essence of this new Iowa effect. “We will have forward,
‘Big Mo’ on our side, as they say in athletics.” “ ‘Big Mo?’ ” “Yeah. Mo — momentum.” Bush loses to Reagan, but
becomes vice president. And the desire to capture
the “Big Mo” from Iowa has only grown,
thanks in large part to Iowa’s embrace of being
first, and the media storm that descends every four years. That’s despite the fact that
most candidates who win … “This is a job interview.” … don’t become president. Plus, many point out that the
state’s overwhelmingly white population doesn’t reflect
the country’s diversity. “I actually think
that we can find places that represent
that balance of urban and rural better.” But the race to get
the “Big Mo” out of Iowa persists because
it’s the first chance to upend expectations,
and put political fates in the voters’ hands. Hey, this is Dave. I’m one of the producers
who worked on this video. Because no one was really paying attention to the Iowa caucuses before the mid-70s, it was actually quite difficult to find archival material. We spent countless hours looking. But that just goes to show how the importance of Iowa we take for granted today essentially came out of nowhere. A total accident. Over the next few months we’ll be following the 2020 election carefully. Tell us what you want to know. Keep watching. And subscribe to The New York Times.