The last close presidential race in this rural northwest Iowa county was 20 years ago, when a mere 144 voters tipped the scales in favor of John F. Kennedy over Richard M. Nixon.
It now looks as if the victor's margin will similarly slim when Palo Alto voters cast their ballots next November. And no one is sticking his or her neck out with a prediction just yet.
Although most national polls give Ronald Reagan a substantial lead in the state and a recent Des Moines Register survey shows farmers in Iowa as a whole prefer him to Jimmy Carter by 2 to 1, a Reagan win in this agricultural county remains far from certain. Farmer discontent with President Carter is not automatically working in Mr. Reagan's favor.
While mention of politics always manages to spark a lively discussion even in the remotest corners of this country, few voters are stirred up about November at this point. Some insist they are not overly fond of any of the candidates and may not decide until they enter the polling place Nov. 7.
In the two months since this reporter's last visit to Palo Alto County, farmer anger over the impact of President Carter's grain embargo and tight credit policies has mellowed slightly. Despite all the talk of no money for seed and fertilizer, most fields were planted on schedule. A visitor these days is likely to hear as many complaints about the foiled hostage rescue attempt in Iran or the wisdom of "open door" immigration policies as about the failings of Carter farm policy.
For his part, candidate Reagan, well-remembered here from his days as a radio announcer in Iowa, appears to have successfully won back many of the country's most ardent George Bush supporters. Mr. Reagan's recent visit to the state and admission of mistakes in deciding not to take part in last January's Iowa GOP debate or to campaign vigorously for Iowa caucus votes seems to have erased any remaining negative impact from those strategy decisions.
"It was sort of like a friend on the street who doesn't say hello. He snubbed us." says Vivian Keerbs, owner of the Duck Inn on Route 4 near Mallard. She admits she has always favored Mr. Reagan but says even now that she wants to see the Republican Party platform and learn of the candidate's vice-presidential choice before making her decision.
There is an anti-Carter vote here. ("We've got to get that peanut farmer out of the White House," vows an Ayrshire auto mechanic who admits supporting him last time.) But that doesn't necessarily translate itno enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. Some of those wary of voting for the Republican mention his "lack of depth."
Certainly, some former Carter supporters are looking with fresh interest at independent candidate John B. Anderson. For some, he has the frank, moral, and independent approach that they originally saw and admired in Jimmy Carter himself.
"Anderson's looking better to me all the time," admits Emmetsburg Democrat eleanore Coffey. She supported candidate Carter in the last election, but told him when he called her for support early this year that she thought he'd made a terrible mistake in admitting the Shah of iran to the United States. She also deplores the President's reversal on the United Nations vote on Jewish settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River. She says she agrees with Mr. Anderson's views on virtually everything from nuclear energy to military spending.
Mrs. Keith Stephens, hoeing the garden behind her Ayrshire home when this reporter stopped by, admitted Mr. Anderson may get her vote by default. She voted for Jimmy Carter last time but is disillusioned now." At first I admired his behaviour on the hostages," she said." "But then I think he began to put his politics first." She said she could not vote for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and doubts she would vote for Ronald Reagan ("He doesn't seem to quite know what's going on.").
But among the well-informed voters of this country there is also noticeable reluctance to "waste" a vote on a candidate who may not have a strong chance of winning.
"You really don't hear Anderson mentioned around here as strongly as Reagan or Carter," says Jane Whitmore, editor of the weekly Emmetsburg Democrat.
Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland has said Mr. Carter is "safe" with the farmers and that their sharp criticism will "pass." He could yet prove to be right in Palo Alto County. Some of those voters here who complain most loudly about the President's mistakes and inconsistencies admit privately that his experience and their respect for him as a person could well prompt them to vote for him again.
Some of the President's support here is grounded on the theory that he cannot make that many more mistakes between now and November and that the economy could improve enough by then to make a difference in his favor.
Much may depend on whether or not the President decided to make another move on the farmers' behalf before November.
"I think Carter can still win in the county, but people feel he's comparing farm to urban votes," says Robert Boyd Griffith, an Emmetsburg lawyer who supports him. "They see him trying to hold down finished food prices and are afraid that their raw food prices will be lowered while the middleman keeps making profits."
John Brown, the county Democratic chairman, says, "I think it will be awfully close, but Reagan could carry this county."