Recalling a Frigid Iowa Presidential Campaign Odyssey From Balmy Austin

December 28, 2011

With the nation’s first 2012 Republican Primary caucus about to unfold in the snows of Iowa in the next few days, I am reminded of a personal experience in that quadrennial drama some 32 years ago. It was a chilling one, both physically and psychologically.

As Director of Communications for Texas Governor John B. Connally’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president in 1980, I was keenly interested in assessing the support of our opponents, and most notably that for Governor Ronald Reagan of California. As part of that   mission, I travelled to Ames, Iowa one icy night to surreptitiously visit a rally for Reagan at a local school auditorium.  Despite banks of snow, subfreezing temperatures and a howling wind, I was startled to witness a  jampacked turnout of hundreds of his loyalists. Chastened, I reported back to headquarters that we might be in “deep trouble” (sanitized version). Sure enough, that preview turned out to be an accurate barometer.  On January 21, we received only 9% of the caucus vote. But surprisingly, it was George H.W. Bush who led the pack with 32% of the vote, compared to 30% for Reagan. The lead  then see-sawed between the two through Puerto Rico, New Hampshire, Massachusetts anf Vermont primaries, while Connally placed all of his chips on South Carolina, where he had the vigorous support of  Governor James Edwards and legendary Senator Strom Thurmond, both political powerhouses in the state.  And Connally support did surge to 30% in the March 8 primary.  But a rising Reagan overwhelmed him with a thunderous 55% of the vote. As a footnote  to how that happened, Wikipedia records that heading into South Carolina, political operative Lee Atwater worked to engineer a victory for Reagan.

“Lee Atwater figured that Connally was their biggest threat there ( in South Carolina). So Lee leaked a story to me that John Connally was trying to buy the black vote. Well, that story got out, thanks to me, and it probably killed Connally….Lee saved Ronald Reagan’s camdidacy,”  said Lee Bandy,  a writer for the South Carolina newspaper The State.

We folded out hand, flew back to Texas, cancelled later primaries, and dutifully campaigned for the Reagan-Bush ticket across the state,

With all due respect to both of them,  John Connally would have made a great president.  He later served as Secretary of the Treasury for President Richard Nixon.

-Julian Read

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