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Jimmy Carter Is Emerging As an Unexpected Role Model in the 2020 Primaries

Suddenly an icon. Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Steve Bullock hears the comparison from time to time, and he doesn’t exactly shy away from it. There’s no denying that his 2020 campaign — a youngish, little-known liberal governor of a pretty red state planning to spend a ton of time crisscrossing Iowa while pitching himself as an anti-corruption outsider — and Jimmy Carter’s 1976 bid have plenty in common. “People will certainly make all kinds of different parallels. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton. All [from] outside of Washington, D.C.,” said the Montana governor. “But certainly President Carter worked hard for every Iowa vote by showing up and listening, and that’s certainly what I’ve been doing thus far in Iowa, but also as a public servant.”

Amy Klobuchar sees some parallels, too. While the Minnesota senator is campaigning, she likes to bring up her visit with Carter earlier this year. “He talked about how, at this point in the race, he had even less national support than me,” she said after a meet-and-greet campaign event in Iowa last month. “People didn’t know who he was. Once he got out there — and got out there in that Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone way — he started doing better and better and better, and he built up gradually. And that’s what we’re doing.”

And John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who’s been effectively camped out in Iowa for nearly two years now, went on Amazon to search for books about Carter’s campaign and administration when he decided to run for president. “The nice thing is you can get three of them for under $10,” he said. He now often compares his strategy of blanketing the first-to-caucus state to Carter’s.

Nearly four decades after he left the White House — and after spending essentially that entire time as a political pariah, his name a political slur wielded by Republicans aiming to paint Democratic candidates as weak or ineffective — Carter is enjoying an unexpected moment in Democrats’ 2020 primary, as a source of advice to some candidates, but mostly as a political inspiration to a field full of historically conscious long shots eager to find a path from relative obscurity to national success with a scandal-weary electorate.

Some candidates have gone as far as to travel to rural Plains, Georgia, where Carter still lives: Cory Booker stopped by in January, before announcing his campaign, and the former president encouraged him to run. Klobuchar visited for a tomato soup and pimento-cheese-sandwich lunch in February, and Pete Buttigieg swung by last month, attending Carter’s Sunday school class and doing a Bible reading at his request. In May of 2017, Bernie Sanders met with him, too, at an event hosted by the Carter Center in Atlanta.

It’s not that Carter — who, at 94, is recovering from hip replacement surgery after surviving a cancer scare in 2016 — has suddenly become a go-to political guru for this crowd, or the only former president with whom they can consult. More have spoken with Barack Obama in recent months, and some have talked with Bill Clinton, too. But the conversations with Obama tend to stay secret, and no candidate has been advertising any chats with Clinton, who has stayed far from the 2020 fray in public. Carter, however, is now largely seen as a benevolent historical figure on the left, an image burnished by the sheer amount of time that’s passed, by a progressive record that looks good in retrospect to liberals, and by his extremely active post-presidency as an advocate for peace internationally and for his work building homes domestically.

Still, his politics remain complicated: He is far from a mainstream Democrat these days. He has interacted on occasion with Donald Trump over North Korea and Chinese trade issues, and he’s angered some in his own party with his criticism of Israel. Meanwhile, though he’s revealed that he voted for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016, he’s also warned Democrats not to swing too far to the left in 2020, or risk reelecting Trump.

But it’s his campaign experience that most interests the 2020 set, which sees clear parallels to 1976: The Democratic field then was the party’s largest ever — until now — formed in the wake of Richard Nixon’s ouster, and amid massive distrust of Washington politics. And Carter was so poorly known that his name wasn’t even included in all of the early public polling, making his rise an attractive precedent for the mass of 2020 candidates desperate for a similar emergence.

Carter’s innovation was to study the then-new nominating rules and determine he could compete nationally if he first planted himself in Iowa for a year and introduced himself to locals and the local press.

“It’s always been one of the states that sorts out from a large field to a smaller one,” explained Bullock of his own decision to spend a ton of time in Iowa, even before announcing his candidacy last month. “And many things I hear from folks in Iowa aren’t unlike what I hear from people in Montana.”

For Carter, mostly circumventing the national media game that his competitors were playing — until the press caught on to stirrings of a surprise in Iowa — did the trick. He came in second, only trailing “uncommitted,” which was good enough to vault him forward in the race. And for most candidates in the two-dozen-strong 2020 field — desperate for whatever attention they can get — that’s as inspiring a model as any.

“President Carter was obviously the first person to do the Iowa model [and] I’m definitely pursuing that strategy,” said Delaney, who’d completed a tour of Iowa’s 99 counties by the end of 2018. “The nice thing about Iowa and New Hampshire is it’s the part of the campaign you can control the most, [and] you can’t control whether you get on Meet the Press.”

Jimmy Carter Is Emerging As a Role Model in 2020 Primaries