Op-Ed: How progressives can reconnect with rural voters

Source: By Patty Judge, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, August 17, 2018

In the aftermath of the 2016 election there was much speculation as to what had happened in rural Iowa. How did it change from blue to deep red so quickly?

We all know that farms have gotten bigger and bigger with fewer farmers living on the land, Main Street businesses have closed and the store fronts are empty. We continue to see an exodus of Iowans from small towns to one of the few population centers in our state. But along with these evident changes there was also a marked shift in the thinking of rural citizens. How did we as progressives lose not only the election but more important, the hearts and minds of rural voters?  And how can we reverse these trends and bring prosperity to rural communities?

Most of my life has been spent in rural Iowa. I am proud to say that today I live in my hometown of Albia, Ia. I have served my community as a state senator, as Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture and as Lieutenant Governor. My family has farmed and operated businesses here for generations. I unabashedly tell you that I love the place that I call home and want it and the rest of Iowa’s rural communities to thrive.

If the present course is to be changed, it was important to analyze what happened in an objective way.  Focus on Rural America was formed to take a look at rural Iowa with a mission of stimulating a dialogue about the rural economy and rural voting patterns.  Our goal is making certain that going forward rural Iowa’s concerns are heard.

Many of the political elites on the coasts have argued that progressives should simply write off the rural Midwest because it is too white, too old and too conservative to ever support a progressive national candidate. In 2017 Focus on Rural America examined the voting decisions of rural Iowans through public forums, polling and focus groups.  We first determined that Iowa is the home of many voters who supported President Obama in 2012 and candidate Trump in 2016.  In fact, 26 of Iowa’s 99 counties swung from Obama to Trump by more 20 than points.  Only 5 Ohio counties matched that feat, none in Texas and none in Florida.

Voters in our swing counties all share some common traits:  First, they all made their presidential decision very late in the campaign; and second, they weren’t impressed by either national candidate in 2016. They gave Trump the benefit of the doubt because they thought he was more likely to bring change to Washington than Clinton. Turns out they were right, but it’s not really the kind of change that helps the rural economy.

Trump promised to get tough on China and other countries on trade. His nationalistic appeal sounded good in 2016, but the reality has been very different. China did not flinch when Trump threatened tariffs and simply targeted soybeans and pork to strike back at Trump’s political base. As a result, soybeans are priced at a 10-year low. According to the Wall Street Journal, every drop of $1 per bushel costs farmers about $4 billion. Of course, input costs don’t drop when the market is damaged, which squeezes farmers even more. Trump policies are costing rural Iowa and rural America far more than any benefit from an ag bailout or tax cuts.

Second, Trump made a campaign promise to support the renewable fuel standard (RFS) and the ethanol industry. However, his selection of Scott Pruitt to head EPA created problems for corn growers and ethanol supporters. Under Pruitt the EPA undermined the RFS and made muddy Trump’s support through handouts to oil refiners via small refinery waivers and by holding hostage the president’s support to lift the ban on E15 sales in summer time.  Ethanol production in Iowa has created jobs in small towns across the state and added value to our corn crop. We have worked too hard to see Iowa’s homegrown industry threatened.

The good news is there is an opportunity in 2018 and 2020 for progressives to reconnect with rural voters in a meaningful way. It starts with more listening and far less political rhetoric. It will require an embrace of change rather than support for the status quo, which includes meaningful proposals and policy positions.  And it requires a laser-like focus on the economic insecurity facing most voters in the rural Midwest.

Tariffs and renewable fuels provide an opportunity, but not a guarantee of success in outreach to rural voters. Ignoring vital economic issues surrounding the agricultural economy and renewable energy and focusing on social issues won’t work. Rural voters care about the future.

My advice to candidates visiting Iowa with an eye on 2020 is this:  You don’t have to have your picture taken with a cow or driving a tractor. But if you want to win in rural Iowa you had better bring a strong economic message early. We want our political leaders to help us make our way of life strong and secure with a stable ag economy, good jobs and great schools.

Patty Judge is a former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and a former Iowa Lieutenant Governor.