Iowa Is In Play, But Rural Voters Are Key

Photo by Julie Fleming

Guest op-ed from former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge and Jeff Link, co-founders of Focus On Rural America.

With the Iowa primary on Tuesday, the field of important races up and down the ballot will be set for the Fall campaign. In the wake of COVID-19 and an agricultural economy on the brink, the choices we make in November will be critical.

Iowa has trended Republican since 2014 and many commentators and talking heads are sleeping on Vice President Joe Biden’s chances here. Until recently, many thought Iowa’s U.S. Senate race would be a coronation for Sen. Ernst. And some Republicans filled with hubris said they might sweep all four U.S. House seats in 2020.

Well, we disagree.

First, a quick review of voter registration changes from 2018 to 2020 show a strong movement back to the Democrats. In May 2018, Democrats trailed Republican registrants by 48,000. Today, thanks to vigorous campaigns by 24 presidential candidates, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 10,000. That change of nearly 60,000 is larger than Gov. Kim Reynolds’ margin of victory over Fred Hubbell in 2018.

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Second, primary turnout seems to match the change in registration. In 2016, the last presidential year primary, about 4,000 more Republicans voted than Democrats. This year, 59,000 more Democrats have requested absentee ballots than Republicans and turnout is exploding for both parties. Turnout will likely be twice 2016’s mark and might be triple. It’s more than coincidence that the registration change matches the turnout advantage for Democrats.

Third, 2018 showed us that while increasing voter turnout and margins in the cities is critical, it’s not enough. Abby Finkenauer, Cindy Axne and Rob Sand benefited from well-organized efforts and energized voters in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. But they were able to cut the Republican advantage in smaller counties to get over the top.

Fred Hubbell won the urban and suburban parts of the state by a healthy 9.3% margin, outperforming Barack Obama in Polk, Johnson and Linn Counties. However, among rural voters, who make up about 33% of all voters, Reynolds won by 27%. That means that Hubbell averaged 36% of the vote in rural Iowa. It’s nearly impossible to win statewide without narrowing the margin from 27% to 20%.

Biden and Iowa’s Democratic nominee for the Senate need to pay attention to the rural parts of the state, particularly along the Mississippi River. Rural voters gave Trump a chance in 2016 because they thought he might be able to change Washington because Washington wasn’t working for them.

What we have witnessed in the last three years is that hard-working Iowans have a harder time affording health insurance and even getting access to it. The big promises of trade deals that would return manufacturing jobs to rural rust belt towns only led to trade wars, tariffs and diminished foreign markets for our grain and ag products. Brazilian farmers are rooting for a second Trump term because they have been the biggest beneficiaries of Trump’s go-it-alone trade policies.

Rural voters, like other swing voters, need to hear more than attacks. They know Trump is flawed and they knew it in 2016. But he promised to make changes on trade, immigration and health care. Trump failed to make the big changes he promised, but highlighting his flaws won’t be enough.

Rural voters want to know what a candidate for President will change to create economic opportunity. Sen. Ernst is in the same boat. She made big promises in 2014, but she has not delivered. Tearing her down is not the answer. Our nominee needs to show how they will put Iowans first, not Sen. Mitch McConnell, and not the agenda of Washington, DC lobbyists.


by Patty Judge and Jeff Link
Posted 5/31/20

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3 Comments on "Iowa Is In Play, But Rural Voters Are Key"

  • Ernst’s poor record on issues affecting rural Iowans needs to be fully exposed for her to be defeated. This includes votes on issues such as: food and agriculture, broadband, privacy protections, consumer protections, clean energy, health care, rural postal service, trade, transportation and veterans. The overall theme is obviously she went from castrating pigs to castrating the middle class.

  • I agree with Matt, as we need to hear more from our candidates on these subjects and how they will try and implement changes that are needed in those areas . Start with two or three hot button issues for attention then some of the others for frosting on the cake . BUT and that’s a BIG BUT , stay away from issues that only rub independent voters the wrong way as we need many of them voting for our candidates . Those segmented issues should and can be kept in the back pocket till elected and then addressed once the day is won . This is what the ultra-conservatives did and it worked wonders for them, so learn the lesson ! Word to the wise, many times our big tent is way to big and diverse and we lose our true north because you can’t do all four directions at the same time !

  • Senate candidate needs to reject so-called “freedom to farm” USDA program; and embrace a countercyclical supply management / parity price support farm bill, with robust conservation measures – soil regeneration, clean waters.

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