Democratic hopefuls campaign to reclaim rural Iowa

Does message or Midwest connection count most? Depends who's talking

The U.S. and state of Iowa flags fly near a cornfield in Eastern Iowa's Grand Mound. The numerous ways the Democratic pr
The U.S. and state of Iowa flags fly near a cornfield in Eastern Iowa’s Grand Mound. The numerous ways the Democratic presidential candidates suggest for connecting the party with rural Iowans rivals the number of candidates themselves. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Dave Palis of Elkader supported Barack Obama as president in 2008 and 2012. But when the 2016 election came around, Donald Trump appealed more to him than Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

“He’s not afraid to go against the grain,” Palis said of the president.

Voters like Palis helped turn Iowa red in a presidential election for the second time in three decades. Now Democrats are looking to build an “urban-rural coalition” to recapture the state with strategies varying from plans to “de-corporatize” agriculture to having more dialogue about faith.

Palis was hardly alone in Clayton County in switching allegiance from Democrat to Republican. Obama won the county by 17 points in 2008 and 7 in 2012. Yet Trump won it in a 23-point landslide in 2016.

“There is obviously not much in terms of commonality between Barack Obama and Donald Trump,” said Chris Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. “They were ‘change’ candidates. These were candidates that wanted to change the way things are done.”

In 2016, Clinton did not win an Iowa county without one of the eight largest cities in it. It was a stark contrast from Obama’s results in 2008 and 2012, where he easily won less-populated counties in northern and Eastern Iowa such as Clayton, Winneshiek, Chickasaw and Worth.

Over the course of weeks at campaign stops and one-on-one interviews, The Gazette talked to Democratic presidential candidates about what they think is necessary to unite Iowa around their party again.

“In 2016, there were too many people who thought the Democratic Party was the party of the elites,” said Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York and one of about two dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls. “If working Americans believe that, we’re going to lose the 2020 election, regardless of who we nominate.”


De Blasio called an appeal to rural Midwesterners a “crucial point” for winning in 2020, and other candidates are prioritizing counties such as Clayton and Cedar again.

Amy Klobuchar: Don’t forget the Midwest

One of his rivals, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, also has emphasized the need to “not leave the Midwest behind.”

“We can win the Midwest, but we’ve got to put someone up that can win the Midwest,” Klobuchar said after an Aug. 8 campaign event in Tipton, a city of 3,200 people. “Yes, you want to win states like Nevada and Arizona and then we want to (have a chance to) win in places like Texas and then of course Florida. But then you have this whole combination of states in the Midwest that you have to win.”

Klobuchar thinks part of the Democrats’ nonshowing in the Midwest was not knowing how to run against Trump.

“No one had ever run against someone like Donald Trump before,” she said. “We had a guy that was playing on different grounds than what we were used to.”

She said it’s not an issue of whether Democrats can win in the Midwest — pointing to Gov. Tony Evers’ win in Wisconsin in 2018 over Scott Walker, a Republican who championed stripping public unions of collective bargaining rights, freezing tuition and exercising fiscal responsibility.

“We clearly have the ability to win in the Midwest,” Klobuchar said. “I always answer that with four words: former Gov. Scott Walker. ... We didn’t win the governor’s race here (in Iowa), but we have in other states.”

Indeed, the Republican Party maintained control over Iowa’s lawmaking agenda by holding the governor’s office and majorities in the Iowa House and Senate.

How to make inroads? Candidates’ ideas vary

How exactly the Democratic Party would win in Trump country varies from presidential candidate to candidate.

The New York mayor thinks his “working people first” motto and progressive policy plans appeal to rural Iowans just as much as the New Yorkers he represents.


“Right now if I’m going to tell you, ‘Your health care is guaranteed, you have a $15 minimum wage, your kid gets to go to pre-K for free (and) if you know you’re sick, you’re getting a paid day off to take care of yourself,’ how much would that improve your life?” de Blasio said. Iowans “have told me that would be a game-changer for them.”

While de Blasio acknowledged these were among the policies Clinton campaigned with in Iowa, he said they weren’t “front and center,” leading to the blowout rural losses.

Klobuchar and fellow Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California released plans in early August to revive rural America.

Klobuchar said her “Heartland Economics” plan stands out because of her record of actually getting things done.

“Look at my track record. I am not just putting words on a page,” said Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. “I have been really involved in these issues. ... I passed everything from a vaccine bank to more money for renewable energy. ... It’s really been my life’s work.”

Several candidates have discussed ways to break up corporate agriculture in an effort to help small, family farms.

Larimer, the political scientist, said that could resonate with Iowans.

“The idea of the family farm is important,” Larimer said. “I think there’s been some frustration about corporate farming taking over, that you lose some of the culture of the state when that happens.”

Larmier said he thinks dialogue about the rural economy and job stability might result in “a better chance of reaching voters” for Democrats. But he does not sense a trend of rural voters preferring more progressive or moderate plans.

Is ‘showing up’ enough? No, UNI professor says

Outside of policy, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., said it’s important to “reclaim” the language about freedom, security and faith — what Buttigieg describes as “the deepest values that motivate progressive policies.”


“I’ve just seen too many people under sort of a spell that says that if you’re motivated by faith, that means you’re a conservative,” Buttigieg said. Trump’s behavior “has a lot of people of faith wondering whether there is a different home they could find politically.”

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told The Gazette and other media outlets in July that the trends in places like Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan — states that Obama won but Clinton lost — can be won over “by showing up.”

Gillibrand has executed that with trips such as the President Trump Broken Promises Tour, where she visited Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan to explain how Trump had lied to voters.

Larimer said Gillibrand’s assessment — “showing up” — isn’t enough for Democrats.

“There needs to be not just showing up, but a connection and a reassurance,” Larimer said. “The voter has to feel comforted by whatever the candidate is saying and whatever he or she proposes.”

Midwest candidates say there’s even more to it than presence and progressive policy.

“You also have to know things like agriculture and these oil waivers that are being granted,” Klobuchar said. “You have to meet them where they are. It’s about being there but also understanding their issues.”

Candidates emphasize their Midwestern roots

When 19 candidates each had five minutes to speak at June’s Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame in Cedar Rapids, Klobuchar spent much of her time highlighting her Midwestern roots.

“My background is a little different from Donald Trump,” she said at the event. “I stand before you today as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner, the daughter of a teacher and a newspaper man, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Minnesota and a candidate for the president of the United States.”

Buttigieg said being from the Midwest helps him in Iowa, but making that connection with voters ultimately depends on what he says, not where he’s from.


“As a Midwesterner, I think the style of politics that’s expected in Iowa comes more naturally to me,” he said. “At the end of the day, more than anything, I think it’s about message, and you have to have a message that cuts through all the clutter — that speaks to people where they are.”

Klobuchar also said being from the Midwest gives her an advantage when relating to Iowans, although she didn’t answer whether she thought a Midwestern candidate is a necessity.

Larimer said Midwestern candidates historically have related better to Iowa voters, but that has not been a necessity after recent caucus success by candidates from outside the Midwest such as Clinton, Trump and John Kerry.

De Blasio refuted the idea that a Midwestern candidate is necessary to appeal to Midwestern voters, saying he doesn’t hear concern about whether “somehow that there’s a gulf between us because we come from different states.”

“I’m going to talk about the everyday kitchen-table issues,” de Blasio said. “That’s in the end what people care about.”

Gillibrand also denied any difficulties relating to voters because she’s from the East Coast, comparing rural Iowa to the rural New York counties she won that Trump also won.

Persuading independent, conservative voters

Midwest connections aside, de Blasio and Buttigieg are looking to show rural Iowa how it can be the focal point and not the backdrop for future policies.

“A lot of it is letting rural voters know how they can be part of the solution on issues from climate change to economic empowerment,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not any one issue. It’s not just ag. It’s not just broadband. ... It’s also painting a picture of what it looks like for parents and grandparents to know their kids and grandkids could have a future in the communities where they grew up.”

De Blasio proposed “de-corporatizing” agriculture to create a more fair outcome for rural residents, but lacked details on how to accomplish it. Buttigieg had a different approach to agricultural issues, talking in detail about everything from soil management to creating a service corps that help rural Americans.


“It’s everything from looking at how soil management practices in American agriculture could mean as much for dealing with climate change as much as renewable energy,” he said. “It means making sure that we look at how an economy can be built up in rural communities at a time when some of our biggest cities have become unaffordable.”

Buttigieg views 2020 as an opportunity for the party to tap into more conservative and independent voting pools.

“It’s a great opportunity — probably the best we’ve had in my lifetime — for Democrats to make inroads with conservative and independent-leaning voters,” Buttigieg said. “I meet so many Republicans who are horrified by what’s being done in the name of their party.”

There’s still work to do for the Democratic candidates before they sway Palis, the Elkader man who voted for Trump in 2016.

“Right now, yeah” he would vote for Trump again “unless things change,” Palis said.

“And right now (the Democrats) have too many Democrats. There’s nobody that really sticks out.”

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