What’s In A Question? A Look At What Iowans Are Asking

What do Iowans care about this presidential election? Is it gun control? Immigration reform? Job creation? Climate change policies?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been keeping track of what Iowans ask at presidential candidate events, and making note of the party affiliation of the crowd and whether or not that reflects the values of the party through the line of questioning.

Spoiler alert: it does.

Immigration Reform

At two separate Republican town hall meetings (Chris Christie and Marco Rubio), immigration reform was asked about within the first three questions (and in Christie’s case, multiple times), sometimes focusing on birthright citizenship. Though both candidates mentioned the issue in their opening remarks, the Republicans in the crowd still brought it up in the Q&A portion of the event. Compare that to Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s crowds at two events in Iowa over the past three weeks, and the issue was not mentioned until several questions in. For certain conservative Republican voters, the issue has become a bit of an obsession of late (likely egged on by Donald Trump), with questioners almost exclusively focusing in on the dangers of illegal immigration. Queries from Democrats, on the other hand, typically hone in on the actual families involved (with many questions coming from immigrants themselves who share their own story) and ways to reform the system.

Wall Street and Criminal Justice Policies

During those same two Republican events in Iowa within a week of each other, not one audience member asked about criminal justice reform or changing the rules on Wall Street. Clinton’s Democratic crowd in Davenport, however, asked about coming down hard on big banks and Wall Street four questions in. Iowans who attended Sanders’ rally in Des Moines asked about the disproportionate number of incarcerated African-Americans right out of the gate. Rarely will you hear a Republican caucus goer at a presidential event ask about either issue – those topics are simply not in their arsenal this election season.

News Cycle Topics

Democratic Iowa voters at Sanders and Clintons’ events, interestingly, did not ask about the “hot topics” of funding Planned Parenthood or the Syrian refugee crisis that the larger media is currently covering. Rather, they questioned Sanders and Clinton about ISIS, gun control, college affordability, and Medicaid reform. Their questions were more widespread compared to those of the Republican crowds, and usually filled with less anger. Often, when an Iowa Republican stands up to ask about ISIS, he or she will allude to putting boots on the ground, combating the terrorist group or the broader threat of “radical Islam.” That inference was not apparent with the Democratic base at Sanders and Clinton’s sessions.

Veteran Care

All four Q&A sessions, however, included questions about reforming the Veterans Administration. At Clinton’s and Rubio’s events, veteran care was the first question asked, showing its top-of-the-mind status of both Democratic and Republican voters. This overlap among Iowa Democrats and Republicans is interesting, though not surprising since the problems in the VA touch any type of American, no matter the party affiliation. Even though veteran care is one of the underlying issues this presidential election season, it rarely gets in-depth coverage by the media as of late. Some candidates, like Carly Florina and Donald Trump, even include reforming the VA in their opening speeches while on the campaign trail, yet neither candidate, or any contender for that matter, has set out very detailed policy to make changes.

Local Issues

Also of note, both Republican voter crowds at the Christie and Rubio events asked about local issues like the Renewable Fuel Standard and alternative energy policies – the RFS issue was the first question of Christie from the town hall group. Typically, these have been policies that Democrats are more supportive of, yet you’ll see it come up often at Republican events. Christie’s forum was hosted at Bruce Rastetter’s farming operation, so it makes sense that regardless of the party affiliation, these two topics would be asked about in the Q&A section. Christie answered the RFS question smoothly – he said he was in favor of it, and has emphasized his support repeatedly at Iowa events. Rubio, on the other hand, faltered a bit when asked from a Cedar Falls Republican crowd how he felt about alternative energy and fracking – he said he supports all forms of alternative energy, so long as it supports the economy, not hurts it, rather than focus in on the specific question asked. That’s not exactly what the ag-based, alt-energy voters wanted to hear from the Republican candidate, but Rubio wasn’t going to deviate from his conservative talking points.

Other questions that were frequently asked included health insurance and Medicaid reform (the second and third questions to Clinton, and the fourth question to Rubio); fixing a broken Congress (sixth question for Christie and ninth question for Clinton); filibuster reform in Congress (the third question asked of Sanders); student debt (sixth question to Clinton); and entitlement programs (fifth question asked of Christie). A few questions were strange and random, like when a Davenport Democratic voter asked Clinton to do an impression of Donald Trump, or when a Cedar Falls Republican asked Rubio how he balances being on the road with family commitments. There are always a few odd-ball questions at any Republican or Democratic event.

Regardless of the party affiliation of the Iowa crowd, it should be noted that Iowans ask tough and meaningful questions of presidential candidates when they are given the opportunity, some of them asking each candidate the same question when he or she comes to town in an effort to compare and contrast answers. Iowans pay attention and are issue-oriented caucus-goers, focusing less on the personality aspects that dominate many voters’ and the media’s attention. Yet through the note-taking of each question from two Republican and two Democratic crowds, it’s readily apparent the difference in focus of the parties’ voters this cycle.


by Sarah Beckman
Posted 10/10/15

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