By Michael Sistak @mikesistak
During presidential election cycles, candidates running for the highest office in the land descend on Iowa to take part in the state fair to talk to voters. This is where I found myself for several days recently, chasing every candidate to gauge engagement among voters, observe what kind of staying power candidates have in advance of the February caucuses and hear what they have to say about agriculture and rural issues.
The level of enthusiasm in the Democratic primary is palpable. Between organized campaign events, the state fair and local party gatherings, it’s clear that Iowa voters are paying attention.
One example – at Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) agriculture and rural policy rollout event north of Des Moines the first week of August, more than 200 people showed up to hear a speech that was less razzle-dazzle and more details about how to address challenges facing farmers and rural residents.
At the fair, every candidate drew crowds when speaking at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox. Some candidates had larger crowds than others, but as one longtime Iowa political operative described it, these were the largest crowds he had ever seen at such events.
At the Iowa Democratic Party’s “Wing Ding” event in northern Iowa, a sold-out crowd packed an event venue to hear from every candidate. The loudest cheers went to frontrunners and rising stars such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Vice President Joe Biden, but each candidate was warmly received by the crowd. Organizers and past attendees told me they had never seen the event so well-attended or rowdy.
But does enthusiasm at events equal votes?
The Iowa caucuses are not as simple as showing up to cast your ballot and then going home. They require you to commit to staying at your caucus site for many hours to see your preferred candidate cross the finish line. This demands an organized campaign. A candidate must have staff in place to identify voters who will commit to caucus for them, sign them up for training if they’ve never done it before and ensure they show up on caucus night.
After former Vice President Biden spoke at the state fair, a group of staff and volunteers wearing campaign T-shirts quickly moved through the crowd asking people if they liked what they heard and if they’d commit to caucus for the former vice president. I was asked three times. Not all candidates who spoke at the fair conducted the same outreach.
What a candidate says matters. Working for Farm Bureau, I pay particular attention to candidates’ views on agriculture and rural policies. Each acknowledged the issues facing farmers and rural voters. Some expressed a commitment to finding new paths to international markets for agriculture exports or to recommitting the United States to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Each candidate also discussed the need for a swift resolution on tariffs and the need for overhauling refinery waivers. Policy discussions went beyond agriculture and also focused on rural communities, with most candidates expressing the need for renewed investments in broadband, healthcare, education, child care, infrastructure, mental health and high-skilled labor.
These ideas appear to be resonating in rural Iowa. One farmer I spoke with said the level of anxiety about trade and tariffs is considerable among farmers in his community. He believed the outcomes of these issues will play a big part in how votes are cast in November 2020.
The urban-rural divide is an ever-increasing gap. Because of Iowa’s unique situation as first-in-the-nation for the presidential primary and a large agriculture state, it’s important to pay attention to what is said there about issues leading up to the February caucuses. Iowa’s farmers and rural residents can shape the discussion to ensure their communities are not being overlooked by those aspiring to the presidency. For farmers and ranchers throughout the rest of the country, this could be an important indicator of how agriculture and rural issues will be discussed during the general election and the policies that may be proposed to ensure that the well-being of all 60 million Americans who live outside large cities is not taken for granted.
It is a long road to the White House. There will be many ups and downs for every campaign, daily polling and a lot of punditry. But what is certain is that voters in Iowa are listening closely, candidates are paying attention to farmers and rural residents and turnout on caucus night will be high.
Michael Sistak is director, grassroots program development, at the American Farm Bureau Federation.