Biden farms for crucial votes in Trump Country

Source: By P.J. Huffstutter and Karl Plume in Chicago and Stephanie Kelly in New York, Reuters • Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2020

(Reuters) – By planting a sign in early October supporting Joe Biden on a country road near her Minnesota dairy farm, Meg Stuedemann initially stood out from her neighbors.

The 54-year-old, who runs Derrydale Farm in Belle Plaine with her husband, supports the former vice president, a Democrat, for president because of his pledges to combat climate change and promote renewable energy.

Signs for Biden’s Republican rival, President Donald Trump, still prevail in their part of rural south-central Minnesota. But as the Nov. 3 Election Day nears, more Biden signs have cropped up, Stuedemann said, dotting the countryside with blue.

“Out here, you feel like you’re alone in supporting Biden,” said Stuedemann, who doesn’t recall seeing a single sign for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton four years ago. “But then you look around and begin to realize, you’re not. Each sign you see, you sit up a little straighter and think, ‘Maybe things are going to change.’”

Biden’s campaign is making inroads in rural America, striving to peel off voters in conservative communities that went heavily for Trump in 2016 over Clinton. That’s one reason the former vice president is stumping in Iowa and Wisconsin on Friday, and in Pennsylvania and Georgia in the precious last days of the race.

Although Biden is unlikely to capture majorities of rural voters, who surveys show strongly favor Trump, his campaign sees cutting into the president’s margins as essential in battleground states where the candidates are polling even or are separated by single digits.

“You cannot win the presidential race if you ignore rural voters,” Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and U.S. agriculture secretary who is campaigning for Biden, told Reuters.

Trump’s campaign is seeking to energize these and other voters in his base, touching down this week in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where he narrowly won in 2016, and visiting Iowa earlier in the month.

“We’ve had a permanent presence in key states around the country for years that has allowed us and the president to connect with rural voters on a personal level about the issues that matter,” Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said in a statement.

“As a result, the Trump campaign is confident that we’ll win with rural Americans, and we’re not ceding any ground because we know Biden’s failed record on trade and his plans to destroy rural access to health care would disproportionately hurt these hardworking families.”

Polls point to some openings for Democrats. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, for instance, reveals that the number of rural Americans who believe the country is headed in the “right direction” dropped from 41% in March to less than a third in mid-October.

In 2016, Clinton’s campaign largely surrendered farm-state voters to Republicans, helping to fuel Trump’s White House win, as well as sweeps of the House and Senate. Biden’s team is determined not to make the same mistake.

In Iowa and Wisconsin – where Trump beat Clinton in 2016 by nearly 10 percentage points and less than 1 point, respectively – Biden’s campaign has touted his support for corn-based biofuels for weeks on rural radio and local television stations. [L1N29B1Q9]

Biofuel plants are an important source of demand for farmers’ corn, used to make ethanol. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has angered growers by exempting oil refiners from requirements to add ethanol to their gasoline.

When the cash-strapped Trump campaign canceled millions of dollars in TV advertisements in Iowa last month, the Biden campaign snapped up those spots, according to Biden’s advisers. Among their goals: to reach farmers spending long days inside their combines as they harvest their corn and soybeans.

And as former President Barack Obama’s campaign did in 2008, the Biden campaign set up rural councils in six battleground states, dedicating staff to work on rural messaging and voter outreach. By reviving the councils abandoned by the Clinton campaign, Democrats hope to be competitive in legislative and local races as well as the presidential contest.

CRACKS IN THE FORTRESS

Rural America remains Trump country. Nationally, voters who identify as living in rural areas support Trump over Biden by 19 percentage points, up from a 14-point advantage in March, according to Reuters/Ipsos polls.

Perhaps bolstering that lead was China’s move, following an interim trade deal with Washington in January, to increase soy and corn purchases this summer and fall. Commodity prices rose to multi-year highs and brought some financial relief to the Midwest.

That was reassuring news to some rural Republicans, who had been rankled by Trump’s trade war with China, which cost U.S. grain farmers billions of dollars in lost sales. Other farmers have never wavered in their support for their president’s policies, including the trade war, touting their views in coffee shops, on Twitter and with flags on their trucks and tractors.

“China was taking advantage of us forever,” said Gary Vetter,60, who raises cattle and grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa in Westside, Iowa. “At least (Trump) is active and trying to do something.”

But there are cracks in Trump’s rural fortress, especially in areas hit hard by the coronavirus.

In Wisconsin, for instance, where hundreds of people have been recently hospitalized, Trump’s lead among rural voters shrank to 2 points in polls conducted Oct. 20-26, from nine points a month earlier, according to the Reuters/Ipsos polls.

In agrarian Winneshiek County, Iowa, where Trump beat Clinton by just 90 votes in 2016, Democrats have become the largest bloc of active registered voters for the first time since at least 2000, said Nathan Thompson, chairman of the Winneshiek County Democrats. Ahead of the 2016 election, Republicans and voters with no affiliation each outnumbered Democrats.

Voters are focused on healthcare and the pandemic, Thompson said.

In a bad sign for the Trump campaign, rural voters appear less inspired to cast ballots this year: According to the Oct. 14-20 Reuters/Ipsos data, 60% of them say they are “certain” to vote, down six points from a similar poll in late September and early October.

UNLIKELY BATTLEGROUND

Republican leaders and many Democrats had assumed Iowa would be an easy win for Trump. But a recent poll by Quinnipiac University shows Trump and Biden running nearly even, with 47% and 46% of the vote respectively.

Particularly in this top corn-growing state, farmers have fumed as the Trump administration repeatedly granted oil refiners waivers from mandates requiring them to use biofuels, saying that lowers demand and prices for their crops.

In September, Republicans said the Trump administration supported farmers by rejecting scores of requests from oil refiners for waivers.

But for some Biden backers, the move was too little, too late.

The waivers “actually destroyed the demand for 4 billion gallons of ethanol, which translates in the U.S. to 1.5 billion bushels of corn,” said Pam Johnson, an Iowa farmer and former National Corn Growers Association president who is backing Biden. “It’s gone. There’s no getting it back.”

Mark Mueller, chair of the Iowa Corn Growers Association’s political action committee, said some of the group’s members will vote for Trump no matter what. Others will simply sit out the 2020 election.

“There are a lot of farmers who are disgruntled with our president and saying, ‘Screw it, I’m just not going to vote,’” Mueller said.

With urban and minority voters vastly favoring Biden, more farming families moving to Biden or sitting out the election could tip states like Iowa in his favor.

In Minnesota, Stuedemann, the dairy farmer, said Biden is simply “better behaved.” She also supports his climate plan.

“We depend on the natural resource base and climate is a part of that,” she said. “Cows don’t like it hot.”

Stuedemann explained that climate affects crop disease, animal health and animal production. She said she was “embarrassed” Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a global pact to fight climate change. Biden said he will recommit to the accord.

Supporting Biden can come at a price in rural areas, however.

In Ohio, soybean grower Christopher Gibbs said he and his family were shunned by fellow-farmers after he began writing op-eds for local newspapers criticizing Trump. Men ridiculed him at the local diner. Gibbs, who voted for Trump in 2016, said he left the Republican Party in part over the China trade war.

“I’ve had women walk up beside me and refuse to make eye contact, because they don’t want anyone to see them talking to me,” Gibbs said. “They’ll say under their breath, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ and then quickly walk away.”

P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek reported from Chicago. Additional reporting by Chris Kahn in New York. Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Julie Marquis

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump enjoys broad support among farmers, but some are unhappy about the impact of his trade and biofuel policies on crop prices and international demand for U.S. agricultural products. Democrat challenger Joe Biden has seized on the biofuel issue, pledged a more multilateral approach to international trade, and promises to make farming more environmentally friendly.

Here are some key campaign issues:

TRADE

Trump challenged trade deals between the U.S. and many of its top commercial partners. Those included some of the largest export markets for U.S. farmers. Trump’s trade war with China, a top buyer of soybeans, dairy and pork, in particular was a sore spot for the president among rural voters.

The series of tariffs imposed on Chinese goods since 2018 resulted in billions of dollars in lost crop sales. That hurt a U.S. farm economy already impacted by extreme weather and a global glut of soybeans and grains, which has depressed prices and farm income.

In response, the administration has rolled out nearly $30 billion in cash aid payments to U.S. farmers since 2018, and then billions more with the coronavirus-impact aid this year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The U.S. and China signed a “Phase 1” trade deal in January.

An Oct. 25 report from the U.S. Trade representative’s office said China had purchased $23.6 billion in agricultural products so far this year, out of a promised $36.5 billion in 2020.

China’s increased purchases of corn and soybeans have helped commodity prices recover in recent months and pleased farmers, though Trump said in July he was not interested in “Phase 2” trade negotiations with China.

While Biden has called the tariffs “disastrous,” he may end up keeping some in place if he wins the election, say former and current advisers.

Biden, who has a history of supporting free trade, said that he will pursue trade policy that works for American farmers. But he faces conflicting interests over trade – including labor unions who want jobs protected, and those who want action on climate change.

Biden would end an “artificial trade war” against the European Union, while working to address persistent imbalances in agricultural trade between the two blocs, adviser Tony Blinken.

He would consult with U.S. allies before imposing any future tariffs on China, seeking “collective leverage” to strengthen his hand against Beijing, advisors Jeffrey Prescott and Brian McKeon told Reuters.

BIOFUELS

Trump has a mixed record on his handling of the nation’s biofuel laws. The issue has a direct impact on corn farmers because corn is used to make the ethanol blended into gasoline under the biofuels mandate.

Trump’s administration has about quadrupled the number of waivers it has given to oil refiners, exempting them from a requirement to blend biofuels into their fuel. That means less demand for the corn to make the fuel – and lower crop prices for farmers.

Still, Trump has granted a few wins for the biofuel industry. His administration, for instance, has allowed for expanded sales of gasoline with more ethanol in it (E15), helped secure an extension of Brazil’s agreement not to impose tariffs on U.S. ethanol imports, and recently rejected a slew of waiver requests from refiners.

Biden supports U.S. biofuel blending requirements and has attacked Trump’s granting of refinery waivers. He has vowed to invest in developing next-generation fuels made from non-food sources like crop residues.

Some question how ethanol in the fuel mix fits into Biden’s long-term goals around zero-emissions vehicles. Higher ethanol content in gasoline reduces carbon emissions in the short-term, but in the long term the growing number of electric vehicles would reduce fuel demand, and ethanol demand with it.

REGULATIONS & THE ENVIRONMENT

Trump has often denounced environmental regulations as unnecessary red tape, and his administration has taken steps to weaken or undo them. It has repealed Obama-era rules that expanded waterway protections, and his Interior Department plans to reopen the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah to cattle grazing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Oct. 27 said it will allow farmers to spray crops with weed killers based on the chemical dicamba sold by Bayer AG and other companies, angering environmental groups less than a week before the election.

His administration also withdrew a final rule raising USDA standards for organic livestock and poultry production that was published to the federal register during the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Although the rule, which had broad support among organic producers, was published when Biden was vice president, the Biden Plan for Rural America does not specifically mention organic agriculture.

A Biden presidency would make a sharp shift in other environmental regulations for farmers, though. Biden has proposed boosting use of clean-energy sources, which could open the door for more grain-based biofuels.

Biden has also proposed U.S. agriculture achieve net-zero emissions, and receive farm income subsidies based on environmental practices such as carbon sequestration. He has promised to “dramatically expand and fortify” the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Stewardship Program and help farmers participate in carbon markets. He wants to expand programs to boost bio-based manufacturing, to turn farm byproducts such as corn stocks and manure into chemicals, materials and fabrics.

Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter and Karl Plume in Chicago and Stephanie Kelly in New York; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Aurora Ellis

 

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