CLINTON — Tom Godat, a union electrician who has always voted for Democrats, cast his ballot for Donald Trump last year as “the lesser of two evils” compared with Hillary Clinton.
He’s already a little embarrassed about it.
There’s a lot that Godat likes about President Donald Trump, especially his pledge to make the country great again by ignoring lobbyists, challenging both political parties and increasing good-paying jobs.
But Godat was surprised by the utter chaos that came with the president’s first month. He said it often felt like Trump and his staff were impulsively firing off executive orders instead of thinking things through.
“I didn’t think he would come in blazing like he has,” said Godat, 39, who has three kids and works at the same aluminum rolling plant where his father worked. “It seems almost like a dictatorship at times. He’s got a lot of controversial stuff going on and rather than thinking it through, I’m afraid that he’s jumping into the frying pan with both feet.”
Of the six swing states key to Trump’s unexpected win in November, his margin of victory was the highest in Iowa, where he beat Clinton by 9 points. Yet at the dawn of his presidency, only 42 percent of Iowans approve of the job he’s doing and 49 percent disapprove, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted last month.
That support varies across the state: In Eastern Iowa, it’s in the low 40s. It’s highest in Northwest Iowa, where 55 percent of Iowans approve of the president’s performance thus far, and it’s lowest in the southeast corner of the state and the Des Moines area, where only 31 percent of Iowans approve, according to the poll.
A 370-mile drive across the state in late February took a Washington Post reporter and photographer through a range of communities that mirror many parts of America. Along the way, more than 100 Iowans explained why so many of them are disappointed in Trump so far.
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While Iowa still is home to many strong supporters who say it’s too early to judge him, there are others who say they voted for Trump simply because he wasn’t Clinton. Many Iowans worry Trump might cut support for wind-energy and ethanol programs; that his trade policies could hurt farms that export their crops; that mass deportations would empty the state’s factories and meatpacking plants; and that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would yank health insurance away from thousands in Iowa.
Godat has lived most of his life in Clinton, a town of nearly 27,000. Hillary Clinton won the city by more than 2,000 votes, but Trump won Clinton County, which was one of dozens of Iowa counties that flipped from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. That shift here and in other Midwest states was largely driven by white working-class voters like Godat.
Godat commutes more than 30 miles south to Bettendorf, where he gets paid a base wage of $34 per hour to help prepare aluminum used for airplanes and cars. There’s a shortage of trained electricians, and last year Godat said he worked 600 overtime hours, bringing his total pay to about $110,000. His wife provides in-home care for the elderly.
Godat hopes his eldest son will get an apprenticeship at the plant after high school. He is confident his employer won’t lay off workers or shut down the plant because it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Iowa and does specialized work that would be difficult to move. He hopes Trump can create more jobs like his.
And that’s why he wishes he could tell the president: “Focus on us, on our country, on our issues here.”
On the other end of Clinton County is the tiny town of Lost Nation, where the president received 66 percent of the vote. On a Wednesday night, a couple dozen farmers and union guys gathered to play pool at the Pub Club. Near the front, three friends in their early 20s sipped beer. They all voted for Trump because he’s an outsider who speaks his mind — and they like what he’s doing so far.
“He’s doing what he said he was going to do, that’s the biggest thing,” said Tyler Schurbon, 23, who says he’s a “progressive Republican” who falls asleep each night watching Fox News. “A lot of people get into the presidency and they just completely forget what they talked about.”
Schurbon trims trees for power companies, a full-time union job that pays $60,000 a year with full benefits. He drives a nice pickup and bought a two-story farmhouse for $50,000 last year.
“That’s pretty good living for not having a college degree,” he said.
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While he doesn’t like how politicized unions are, he’s grateful for the wages they negotiated over the years. The Republican-run Legislature voted last month to drastically limit collective bargaining rights of public workers, worrying members of private unions like Schurbon.
While others in the bar insist that Trump supports unions, Schurbon doesn’t think so: “Nope, he’s completely against them.”
Schurbon and his dad farm about 500 acres of soybeans and corn, so he’s also worried about the president’s promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which could hurt farmers who export to Canada and Mexico.
“He’s really hurting us, even though everybody around here is conservative,” he said. “When you cut off trade, that cuts off everything. Where do our crops go? They don’t stay here.”
Still, Schurbon likes much of what Trump is doing and he wishes protesters would give him a break. The day before, hundreds descended on an event hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, up the road in Maquoketa.
About 140 miles southwest of Lost Nation is the much larger town of Newton, which for generations was home to a Maytag factory that once employed one in four residents. The factory closed in 2007, laying off more than 3,000.
Newton has somewhat recovered, although most locals commute out of town for work. Two companies that manufacture wind turbine parts have taken over part of the Maytag factory, creating hundreds of jobs, although they pay less than Maytag did. While Trump claimed on the campaign trail to support wind energy, he has also fought wind projects near his properties, and some Iowans worry he could cut subsidies.
Nearly a dozen local retirees gathered at a barbershop downtown on a Thursday morning, chatting about the cold reception Republican senators were getting at town halls. Nearly all of them voted for Clinton, though Trump won surrounding Jasper County.
“I hate to say it, but I voted for Hillary,” said Dave Drew, 71, a longtime Democrat who retired from Maytag in the early 1990s after working there for 27 years. “I voted against Trump. We didn’t have a choice. I mean, I don’t think she was the greatest choice. I don’t think he was, either. Joe Biden would have been my choice.”
Although this was a room full of Democrats and left-leaning independents, the conversation was far from politically correct. The group mostly agreed mass deportations of undocumented immigrants would tank the state’s economy, although they wondered why immigrants don’t learn English before coming here.
Jerry Wylie, 73, praised Latinos for having a strong work ethic and taking low-paying factory and meatpacking plant jobs that most Iowans don’t want.
Another 40 miles west of Newton is Urbandale. Clinton narrowly won the city of nearly 42,000.
The corridors of Merle Hay Mall filled with retirees speed-walking and moms pushing strollers.
Steventjie Hasna, 24, was there with her 1-ear-old daughter. Hasna is a conservative Christian deeply opposed to abortion and usually backs Republicans. This election, she didn’t vote.
“The balance between Hillary or Trump — they’re both horrible, in my opinion — but Trump outweighed it just because of his racist stance on everything,” she said.
Hasna was stunned when Trump won and her young family has deeply felt the ramifications of the president’s first days in office. Her husband, Hosen Hasna, is from Syria and came to the Midwest for college. He later took a job in the small Iowa town where Steventjie Hasna — her first name is Dutch and she took her husband’s Arabic last name — grew up. He works as an electrical engineer at a tire factory and she stays home with their daughter.
She continues to practice her Christian faith, while he attends Friday prayers at a mosque when he can. His parents, who live in Damascus, often visit Iowa for five months at a time.
“I don’t care what he says, you’re attacking Muslims here,” she said of Trump’s travel order. “And that’s not American at all. We’re American. We stand for American values and that’s the exact opposite of what he stands for.”
Hasna is terrified that her husband’s mosque will be attacked or that he will be targeted.
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About 30 miles northwest of Urbandale is Perry, which has been revitalized with the help of thousands of Latinos and other immigrants who moved to work at a meatpacking plant.
The town of about 8,000 has long struggled with racial tensions. A month before Trump launched his campaign, a bilingual kindergarten concert was interrupted by a man shouting: “USA! English only. USA! English only.”
The president’s vow to deport millions of undocumented immigrants has scared many law-abiding residents of Perry, said Oscar Ramirez, 41, a legal resident who owns a grocery store and is seeking to become a citizen.
Ramirez moved from El Salvador to New York in 1990 when he was 15. After eight years there, he moved to Perry to work at the meatpacking plant because he heard the Midwest was a crime-free place to raise children. Four years ago, he and his wife opened their store. Lately, he said, people have come to him with their fears.
“They come to me and they talk to me, and I say, ‘Hey, calm down. Nothing is going to happen, everything is going to be OK. You have to have hope that everything will be OK.’ “
Jim George, 68, a retired county engineer who has lived in Perry for 20 years, said he voted for Trump but his view of immigrants is different. “These are good folks,” he said. “This place would not be functioning without the folks that have come in here.”
“I voted for the Supreme Court, ... ” said George, who opposes abortion rights. “With Trump, you just hold your nose.”
Continuing west takes you through the deeply conservative Fourth Congressional District represented by GOP U.S. Rep. Steve King, who fought for some of Trump’s immigration proposals early on.
Trump won the district by 27 points. His approval rating here in the Iowa Poll was 55 percent.
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The small town of Missouri Valley sits nestled between the river of the same name and the railroad tracks. Trump received nearly 60 percent of the votes here.
A day after a snowstorm closed schools, women ranging in ages and politics ventured to Abundant Moon Yoga.
A 10 a.m. class attracted two retirees from Woodbine who usually vote for Republicans.
Lois Surber, a 67-year-old retired city clerk, said she didn’t like either candidate but voted for Trump. Libby Ring, a 70-year-old retired nursing assistant, didn’t vote.
Neither woman could name a thing the president has done they liked, but both said protests and negative commentary are not helping.
“We have to be adults and whoever is elected, we’re going to have to follow them.” Ring said.
She paused and then added: “But he’s very hard to follow.”