It’s now late August, six months before the Iowa caucuses. The Iowa State Fair, together with its butter cows, food on sticks, and sundry fried delights, has come and gone, but Democratic candidates will continue to crisscross the state consuming various pork products, giving stump speeches, and more, hoping to gain an edge there before caucusing gets underway. The post-fair spin room has been busy churning out takes and fundraising emails about how each of them performed—and it will only intensify from here.
Meanwhile, the shadow of President Donald J. Trump looms large. Weirdly, for people trying to win a presidential race in 2020, everyone, including Trump, is treating Iowa like the state it was a decade or more ago—a stereotype in the national imagination—rather than the very different first-in-the-nation chunk of the heartland that it has become.
If you listened to the campaign speeches of Democratic candidates or watched the moves made by this president, you’d be forgiven for thinking agriculture is the largest industry in the state. But that title actually goes to advanced manufacturing, a $29 billion annual addition to Iowa’s economy which pulls in three times more than the farming every politician is anxious to subsidize.
It certainly seems as though the 2020 lineup of candidates, including President Trump, missed this memo.
Trump won Iowa comfortably in the 2016 general election, so much so that Hillary Clinton pulled up stakes there well before Election Day. But the truth is that he’s in actual trouble there going into 2020—trouble that isn’t likely to simply dissolve or even abate. The impacts of his trade war with China have been rough on farm country. Not to mention the disastrous flooding. Trump’s solution to both has been subsidies and bailouts—solutions, maybe, but the kind predicated on the notion that presumptions about Iowa and Iowans from years and years ago remain valid and accurate. It’s not an informed notion.
People forget this now, but Trump lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses to the most anti-ethanol candidate in presidential history: Ted Cruz. This should go to show that ethanol isn’t the be-all-end-all in a state where we’re routinely told it is. Despite this, Trump has made major concessions like year-round E15 sales to try to buy Iowans’ affections, though to little avail.
There’s ample evidence that farmers don’t want a handout and instead simply want to sell into global markets free of tariffs. Yet, the Trump administration’s solution to economic woes in Iowa, woes that the administration itself has created through the trade war, has been subsidies for farmers. That’s his quick “solution,” not their permanent one.
And as it turns out, this all seems to be exactly what Democrats think Iowans want, too, with a few minor twists.
On August 13th, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made a point of bashing small refinery exemptions the ethanol industry loathes quite explicitly. But he’s hardly alone in cuddling up to King Corn—basically the whole Democratic field has taken the old West Wing “Ethanol Pledge.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is proposing trade policy that would be as bad or worse for exporters, almost certainly including farmers, as Trump’s. She proposes stringent criteria on negotiations with trade partners—for both new deals as well as existing treaties—that would require compliance with environmental and labor standards. The high standards would have to be agreed to before even entering the negotiation so, while they may look appealing to advocates on those issues, they are just as, if not more, likely to keep potential partners from even coming to the table.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders seems so beholden to the view that nothing exists in Iowa that isn’t farming-focused or -funded that he made one’s “right to repair” one’s tractor a policy pillar. That’s not a joke at Sanders’ expense; it’s literally his proposal. “When we are in the White House,” it reads on his campaign website, “we will pass a national right-to-repair law that gives every farmer in America full rights over the machinery they buy.”
What none of these candidates has noticed, for all the time they’re spending on the ground there, is that Iowa is changing. In fact, Iowa has already changed.
According to this recent Monmouth poll of Iowa Democrats, the top five issues on their minds when choosing a presidential nominee are health care, environmental concerns, beating Trump, immigration, and education. Biofuels policy and farm subsidies don’t even rank (neither does gaining the “right to repair” your tractor, for the record). Maybe that’s because Iowans, Democratic and Republican, aren’t the stereotyped, overall-wearing, corn-farming country bumpkins that political consultants both sides of the aisle get paid to tell their bosses, because hey, that’s what they learned in political consultant campaign school from someone who ran so-and-so’s (likely losing) Iowa campaign back in the 1990s or early 2000s.
If candidates are going to talk energy in Iowa, they might want to devote more time and attention to the fact that according to the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC), in 2016, “Iowa [was] a national leader in wind energy, producing the highest percentage of electricity produced by wind – over 36 percent… of any state.” Also according to the IEC, Iowa was first in the nation to produce more than 30 percent of its electricity from wind.
Iowa’s investment in wind is important, not as a standalone data point but because it has helped it to attract capital investment from Facebook, Microsoft, and Google. This leads to another key point: According to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, finance and insurance is Iowa's second-largest industry with more than 94,000 Iowans employed by over 6,000 finance and insurance companies (over 8,000 of them by Principal, specifically). The technology industry comes surprisingly close to that number, employing over 75,000 workers and accounts for over $10 billion (or about 8.8 percent) of the state’s GDP.
Going back to wind, that renewable sector itself comes in at about 10 percent of that amount, “support[ing] between 7,000 and 8,000 jobs in 2016” per the IAC. But it’s also a source of revenue for—you guessed it—farmers, or those who formerly were farmers before their crops and markets were decimated. That revenue also funnels tax revenue into depleted rural American tax coffers.
That’s going to matter a lot, because even if every presidential candidate going thinks the key to winning Iowa is treating every would-be caucus-goer like he’s Farmer Bob (or his wife, kid, sibling, or cousin), the fact is, 2,533 farms have been consolidated or absorbed into larger farms over the last five years according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture; just 86,104 remain, shrinking farm acreage by nearly 59,000 acres.
Sure, ethanol still matters to people (though it’s hard to believe with Trump’s concessions, and his appeals to rural, white working-class voters who feel they’re losing the America they’ve always known, he doesn’t have those votes locked). So too does soybean farming.
But it’s not 1990 anymore, or even 2005. Nostalgia aside, candidates of both parties would do better to focus on the fact that Iowa’s future looks a lot more tied to these industries more frequently stereotyped and derided as “coastal” than its traditional roots. The first state to caucus has had a makeover. It’s time presidential candidates’ Iowa-focused policy, and talking points, got one, too.