Palo Alto County, Iowa — It was a family of Carters who first settled in the gently rolling countryside of this northwest Iowa county only 125 years ago. Yet in the spring of 1980, as a presidential election approaches and the Carter in the White House looks here as elsewhere for support, Palo Alto voters clearly are feeling no special loyalty to the Carter name.
Though James Earl Carter won the support of a majority of voters here in the last presidential election, there are strong indications already that he may not be able to do so again in November.
"I think a lot of Democrats are going to be switching sides in this election -- Reagan's looking pretty good to me," one farmer says.
At the moment it is hard to find a farmer anywhere in Palo Alto County who says he will vote for Jimmy Carter. The incumbent President still draws plaudits as a "good" and "decent" man. But as chief executive he stands guilty of a string of broken promises in the eyes of many farmers here who supported him in 1976.
As they see it, it was bad enough for the President to impose a grain embargo last January after publicly dismissing it as an option only months before. Farmers say they suspected from the start that they might be more hurt than the Russians by the move but relied on the President's next promise to cushion the blow by buying up much of the embargoed grain and taking other protective economic steps. They say there has been little or no follow-through.
"Carter said farmers wouldn't have to bear the brunt of the embargo, but they are," grain farmer Bob Eckert says. "You can't believe what he tells you, and that's enough reason not to vote him."
"As a man Carter can't be beat, but he made a lot of promises he should never have made," declares A. W. Schuller, a farmer and former major of the town of Mallard. He suppoorted Mr. Carter in the last election but says, "Reagan is the only way I could go now."
"I supported Carter in the last election, but I wouldn't give you a penny for him again," says a farmer from Ayershir. He says that he and his wife are both registered Democrats and will soon march to the county auditor's office to change their party registration cards.
The reason political analysts listen particularly carefully when Palo Alto residents speak and vote is that the county as a whole happens to have voted for the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1896.
So far in this election year, the only official indicators of where county voters stand were the January caucuses of both major parties. Jimmy Carter won in the Democratic caucusing here, and George Bush won on the Republican side.
Since then there have been no polls -- unless you count a highly informal poll of fourth graders in Emmetsburg's West Elementary School, conducted a few days ago by 10-year-old Jeremy Whitmore, son of the editor of the county's chief newspaper. The survey was prompted by a classmate's comment that "Carter will never make it." The results, presumably a mysterious mix of television, parental , and classmate influence, came up 17 for "kennedy," 3 for "Ragon," and 2 each for Carter and Anderson. Jeremy explained to his mother, Jane Whitmore, who edits Emmetsburg's "The Democrat," that he had spelled out the names as they sounded and that he himself had voted for Senator Kennedy in the end "because he was winning."
So far, most of the county's Bush supporters appear to be holding firm with their choice.
"We'd prefer him as the candidate," explains Ed Norland, co-chairman of the county Republican organization. "But we're realists . . . and I'm sure the Reagan feeling has picked up here over the last several weeks."
But some Republicans here are convinced that a Reagan nomination would lock out the best-qualified GOP candidates.
"The only ones I think are worth anything are Bush and Anderson, but I don't think either of them will get the nomination," says Ruthven resident Jim Sampson.
Bush supporter Joe Morrow of Ayershir says he is swithcing his support to John B. Anderson and would follow him even along a third party route.
Such Carter support as there has been here among Democrats -- and many argue much of it was more anti-Kennedy than pro-Carter from the start -- has clearly eroded since the January precinct caucuses. Just a few days ago, one angry Carter delegate from Graettinger dashed off a letter to the White House saying he could no longer in good conscience remain a delegate, since he believed that the Midwest, under current Carter policies, "is headed for financial disaster."
And a few here still think that Ted Kennedy could net the nomination.
"I think it's possible -- people at last are beginning to listen to some of the issues Kennedy has been raising," says Kennedy delegate Peggy Wigen, who claims that over the last month or two she has been getting a much friendlier response than before to the Kennedy bumper stickers on her car and the campaign button she wears.
It the presidential race becomes a Carter-Reagan battle, as most now assume, it is not yet clear whether Palo Alto voters disenchanted with President Carter would really vore for Mr. Reagan or grudgingly cast their ballots for the incumbent because they see no other choice. Democcratic county chairman John Brown says he thinks many of the disgruntled will opt for Mr. Carter in the end.
"Most people in this area don't trust Kennedy," he explains. "They're scared of Reagan . . . and Carter is what's left."
Longtime Carter supporter Boyd Griffith, an Emmetsburg lawyer, agrees: "The criticism of Carter around here is definitely becoming more intense. A lot of people now openly criticize him in front of me, even though they know I'm for him. . . . But I don't think they're switching parties so much as just criticizing."
This reporter last visited Palo Alto County six weeks ago. Now, voters are complaining much more vigorously about inflation and the economic squeeze but much less about the Iranian situation and how much better their particular candidate might have handled it. Yet many voters are sharply critical of the President's policy against participation by US athletes in the Moscow summer Olympics.
Corn is still piled high in cribs along the highways here, waiting for prices to improve -- much as it was several months ago. Clouds hang low as farmers begin turning over the rich black soil in their fields in preparation for spring planting. Some worry that readying their soil is as far as they will get. With commodity prices falling fast and credit so tight that borrowing money for seed, fertilizer, and equipment becomes tougher almost every day, many farmers place the economic blame squarely on Washington.
Whether or not their economic situation improves by fall could well determine Palo Alto County's status in November as Reagan or Carter country.
"If things get as tough out here as I think they're going to," says S. J. Brownlee, head of the Bush campaign in the county, "I think there's going to be a shift toward Reagan at least among independents and perhaps among some Democrats."