Analysis: How Iowa Prepped the Field for Winning Back Rural Voters

This year’s Democratic candidates have better policies with which to court America’s rural voters. You can thank Iowa.

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The following article is republished with permission from Iowa Starting Line, which covers the Iowa Caucus and other Iowa political news.

The Iowa Caucus has certainly seen its fair share of justified criticism in recent months. The Iowa Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee were blasted for the caucus night reporting failure. Continued questions over Iowa’s place in the process ramped back up — it’s too white, it’s too old, it’s too rural, many argued.

But a look back on this caucus cycle shows plenty of benefits for the future of the Democratic Party and their electoral efforts in 2020. Rural and mid-size city communities like those in Iowa do exist across America, including in the very Midwest battleground states where the presidential election will likely be decided.

Josh Cook
Josh Cook

Doing well in places like Independence, Iowa (pop: 6,000), will help a Democrat do well in small towns that dot the landscape in states like Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yes, these states have have urban centers (so does Iowa) important for turnout, but outside of those centers are blue-collar, rural communities filled with working-class families.

These are the places Donald Trump thrived. They’re also the places where people feel ignored, left out, and looked down upon by politicians. The Iowa caucuses have long been an opportunity for those voices to be heard (and the winners here are often outsider or new-to-the-scene candidates who advocate for a shakeup in politics).

Before the reporting chaos on caucus night, those voices were being heard.

As a result, this caucus cycle led to the development of some of the most robust rural policies America has seen in some time — especially from Democrats.

In fact, most of the Democratic candidates for president went above and beyond perfunctory rural platforms. For the top handful of candidates, they didn’t just outline vague, rural policy, they built revitalization plans.

Rural Issues On The Caucus Trail

While there are plenty of studies and media coverage to explain the rural/urban divide in America, there is one issue that is universally important to people across the state of Iowa: health care.

“You see farmers working second or third jobs, or their spouse working off the farm, just to pay for health care,” said J.D. Scholten, the Democratic candidate in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. “You see in these small communities, you see the struggle to just keep up.”

Rural folks seemed concerned with a few key obstacles: cost, access and quality. The same is true for urban dwellers; cost, access and quality all need to be improved.

Because of this, many of the candidates’ rural plans, which include measures for agricultural support and rural infrastructure, also hold goals to improve health care infrastructure in rural areas.

“The backbone of this district is agriculture and small businesses. Those areas tend to not have the best (health care) benefits,” Scholten explained. “Usually it’s the bigger corporations that have all the benefits to offer their employees.”

But as Iowa watches health care facilities, OB/GYN clinics and maternity wards close, access to affordable, quality health care is on the top of voters’ minds regardless of the designation of their community as “urban” or “rural.”

A Point Of Comparison

In 2015, Hillary Clinton rolled out her “Plan for a Vibrant Rural America.” The opening paragraph said, “We must do more to ensure the vitality of our rural areas — not only because America’s 46 million rural residents make up nearly 15 percent of our population, but also because rural America provides the foundation for our country’s economic success.”

While Clinton did support the biofuels industry, the plan is more-or-less a list of institutions she would have upheld, like the USDA’s small business development, the Renewable Fuel Standard and others.

“I think that there was no conversation in ’16, a little conversation at ’18, and definitely a different tone and more attention paid to rural issues in this cycle that there has been a recent history, which is certainly a good thing,” said former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge.

Clinton’s plan was a pretty typical policy rollout coming out of Iowa — and was by no means unambitious — but the rural proposals coming from Democratic candidates this cycle went much further.

Unprecedented Rural Investment

Looking at some of the plans from this year’s group of presidential candidates, by and large they put forward concrete commitments for spending in rural areas.

“If Democrats are going to take back what I believe is rightfully our ground, the working folks that live and raise their families in rural America, then they have to go there and they have to talk to them, and they have to understand the problems that they have,” Judge explained. “They have to understand what we need from elected officials.”

Of the top candidates, Pete Buttigieg’s plan is the most similar to Clinton’s, but it offers some numbers on top of initiatives.

On health care, Buttigieg calls for an investment in tele-health services in rural areas and backs it up with a commitment to double funding for the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program, bringing it up to $1 billion in annual investment.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has multiple rural plans. One piece of her proposal, creating a new farm economy, was an entire solo policy rollout. This piece alone is longer than Clinton’s entire rural policy proposal from 2016.

It mostly deals with anti-trust laws and corporate consolidation in agriculture, but it also calls for paying farmers to combat climate change. Warren, in this farm economy proposal, says she will increase funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, taking it from $1 billion annually to $15 billion.

Warren’s main rural plan is called “Investing in Rural America,” which includes pumping more than $3 billion into rural and indigenous housing projects.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ plan proposes, in part, that broadband be regulated like a public utility, with a $150 billion investment in grants and technical assistance for states and local communities to build their own high-speed internet networks.

Tom Steyer wants to invest more than $860 billion in rural areas through broadband connectivity, health care, climate change and more.

The candidates are listening to rural voters, and they are working with Democratic leaders in the state, like Judge and Scholten, who have helped them shape their rural policies.

Biofuels Unity

There was one specific issue, which has been contentious in the past, that was embraced by all the Democratic candidates this year as they campaigned in Iowa: biofuels.

“Our thinking heading into the Iowa Caucus is less for picking a horse. It’s more making sure that the field understands that they need a real platform to be a legitimate candidate at the national stage, and that their rural platform needs to include ethanol,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “Ethanol is part of what helps real economy survive and thrive. And that’s true in Iowa, but in many other states as well.

“So, we were very pleased to see that if you look at the candidates, the top five finishers in the caucus, they all had in-depth rural and they all supported biofuels. And that’s exactly where we want to need them to be.”

There’s a few reasons for this support this time around, and it actually fits into other parts of candidates’ rural plans.

First, Democrats are united in their fight against the fossil fuel industry. Supporting biofuels is a way to shift political and economic power away from oil and coal companies.

Second, Democrats are similarly united on combatting climate change. Paying farmers for conservation best practices is a significant part of the conversation, and it’s in nearly everyone’s rural plans.

“I believe 14 of them went through ethanol plants,” Judge said. “As they did that, they understood more about modern agriculture, about corn production, about the uses for corn and corn byproducts, all of those things that became that much more understandable.”

There are efforts being made in Iowa to get ethanol production as close as possible to carbon-neutral. This obviously makes it an easier sell to environmentalists, but it is also an alternative to fossil fuels while electric vehicle transitions happen.

Support for biofuels could be interpreted as pandering when candidates are in Iowa, but they seem to be taking it seriously. Candidates have defended renewable fuels on the debate stage, and used it as a way to throw digs at the Trump Administration.

It’s also a part of their massive rural plans that they will take with them to other battleground states, as the party works to earn the trust and support of working-class communities in rural areas.

Josh Cook covers rural issues and healthcare for Iowa Starting Line. He’s a graduate of Drake University and originally from Oregon, Illinois.

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