There is joy in Palo Alto County, Iowa, this week. The fewer than 8,000 registered voters there, if not all pleased with the results of the election, were at least pleased with the performance of their county.
For the 22nd consecutive presidential election, residents of this rich farming territory voted with the national winner. The margin for Ronald Reagan over President Carter was a slim 527 votes. Yet, county historians remembers two times -- the 1956 race between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson and the 1960 race between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- when the winner's victory margin in Palo Alto County was fewer than 200 votes.
Although traditionally Republican Iowa went solidly for Republican nominee Gerald Ford in 1976, in this bellwether northwestern county 54 percent of the voters preferred Mr. Carter.
Democratic and Republican county leaders agree that voters who made the crucial difference in 1980 -- undecideds and independents -- probably were voting more against Carter this time than for Mr. Reagan.
"Too many people just didn't believe, on the basis of the last four years, that Carter could do the job," says county Democratic chairman John Brown.
"I think, with independents and a lot of the Democrats, it was a reaction against the President," agrees Republican county co-chairman S.J. Brownlee. He says he disagrees with the commonly accepted characterization of Iowa farmers as traditionally Republican.
"I don't think that's been true in the last 10 years, and I think the big issue for most farmers here in this election was still the embargo [on grain sales to the Soviet Union]."
"The vote really surprises me. I just had a feeling in my heart this time that the county would go for Carter," says Jane Whitmore, editor of the Democrat , the weekly newspaper published in Emmetsburg, the county seat. "I think the sentiment was that people just felt it was time for a change."
Although many political scientists argue that so-called bellwether counties such as Palo Alto are no more than a historical coincidence in a nation of 3,000 counties, there is no disputing the fact that, whatever the reasons, Palo Alto has managed to hang onto an enviable record.