Opinion | Why Iowa Is in Play
KNOXVILLE, Iowa — On the eve of Election Day, Iowa is in play. Donald Trump galloped to a nine-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but now he’s running neck and neck with Joe Biden, who made a visit to the state last week.
The president still has a fervent base here — so fervent that it appears he has been sacralized among some voters. You see it in rural Iowa: A speaker at a recent event in Knoxville said, “I love Jesus, and I love Donald Trump, and Donald Trump was put on this earth to be God’s soldier.”
The base is devoted, but is it still big enough to win? Iowa may no longer be a true swing state, but Barack Obama won it in 2012 by nearly six points.
So why is the race now so close? Part of it is a reversion to form. But probably a bigger part is that Iowa needs smart government now more than ever. To many voters here, Mr. Biden is seen as someone who wants to govern; Mr. Trump is seen as someone who wants to perform.
The state is fighting Covid-19 outbreaks, and the president’s neglect has not gone unnoticed — especially among older voters. We are also still recovering from a devastating derecho this summer, which compounded the challenges wrought by the president’s trade war with China.
The trade war ruined relationships that had been generations in the making. Mr. Trump also granted waivers to big oil companies from biofuel requirements, which undermined the ethanol market — something of a political third rail in Iowa. That, combined with lower fuel demand as a result of the coronavirus and the trade war, has caused plants to close and job cuts. (Under pressure from Iowa lawmakers, the administration reversed course in September.) Farm debt is expected to rise 4 percent, farm bankruptcies continue to rise, and farm organizations post suicide hotline numbers. The president’s trade and farm-policy failures may have also hurt Joni Ernst, an incumbent senator in a tight race with a Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield. Ms. Ernst damaged herself badly in a recent debate, when she flubbed an answer on the price of soybeans (her opponent aced a similar question on corn).
It has been a tight race. The FiveThirtyEight polling average for Iowa has Mr. Trump up almost two percentage points, though a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released over the weekend showed him leading by seven points.
Many farmers remain loyal to the president. A saving grace for them has come in the form of farm aid, a not-so-subtle bribe of tens of billions of dollars from Mr. Trump. A farmer friend tells me that the latest round of payments came faster than any payment he has ever received; normal procedures seemed suspended. A little math, a signature and a direct deposit payment — all in time for Election Day.
The administration hasn’t been very subtle about this money. A recent report from the Office of Special Council determined that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue improperly used his position to influence the election by promising more help for farmers.
And it’s part of Mr. Trump’s re-election pitch in rural areas. At a recent rally in Des Moines, he said, “Some of the farmers were making more money the way I was doing it than working their asses off, all right?”
Farm subsidies have now hit a stunning $46 billion, constituting 40 percent of farm income, the most since 2005.
In Omaha, Mr. Trump said, “Some people say our farmers do better now than they did when they actually had a farm.”
But most farmers want trade, not aid. Unfortunately, a lot of the aid is going to larger operations and not helping the family farms nearly as much as it could.
Mr. Biden’s rural plan offers a new revenue stream for farmers — paying them for environmental services that will pull carbon from the air, improve air and water quality, and more — and has won praise in local agriculture circles. The Democratic congressional candidates J.D. Scholten, Rita Hart and Ms. Greenfield are spreading the word on these proposals.
In recent discussions with the journalists Doug Burns of The Carroll Times Herald and Art Cullen at The Storm Lake Times, both in deep-red northwestern Iowa, they suggested that Mr. Trump’s inept response to the virus is a big concern among voters there, too. Mr. Biden won’t win that part of the state, but margins can make a big difference in a tight race.
Mr. Burns says many Catholics in the area are supporting Mr. Biden (who is Catholic) — during the caucuses, Mr. Burns saw older Republican Catholics at Biden events. Mr. Cullen says there is some political tension in the area, in part a result of Protestant support for Mr. Trump and Catholic support for Mr. Biden.
Still, in many parts of rural Iowa, it’s difficult to be publicly pro-Biden without getting some blowback. Trump supporters are loud and proud. In nearby Oskaloosa, there is a Trump gear retail outlet, the Trump Shop. It was different in 2016, when analysts spoke about shy Trump voters — people who privately supported him but would not say so publicly. This year we might talk about shy Biden voters, sitting quietly in the coffee shops while their friends opine on the triumphs and tribulations of their great leader and his legion of enemies.
You can still find public signs of support for Mr. Biden. Chuck, a buddy who runs the local food pantry, drives an old, rust-riddled, beat-up pickup truck. At a recent “Ridin’ for Biden” vehicle parade, he led the way, with a Biden flag flying from the back of his truck. Below the flag is a sign that’s been there for years: “Where money is an idol, to be poor is a sin.”
A local yard sign says: “I’m a Republican but not a fool! Biden 2020.”
Democrats are energized. Mr. Trump’s base remains strong and confident. The difference this year just might be the rural shy Biden voters, who don’t like what America has become under Mr. Trump and are looking for a unifier, not a divider, and a problem solver, not a personality.
Robert Leonard, the news director for radio stations KNIA and KRLS, is the author of “Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations.”
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