View from Middle America: Iowa may be losing that loving feeling, Mr President

By Kevin Bloom 11 September 2011

The central place of Iowa in US national politics was cemented in the 1988 presidential elections, when Iowans, reeling from the farm crisis and the decimation of the local economy, voted Democrat for the first time. After two elections that saw extremely close calls in the state, in 2008 Iowa voted Obama by a landslide. Is the love affair now over? By KEVIN BLOOM.

In December 1846, fourteen years after the Sauk and Meskwaki had been pushed out of the Mississippi valley and three years past the removal of these selfsame tribes from the Iowa River valley, Iowa became the 29th state in the Union. From that date until 1969, reflecting a Republican tradition typical of the American heartland, the state elected only three Democrats to the United States Senate. Since inception the people of Iowa had been farmers, the introduction of the railroads in the 1850s transforming it into a major agricultural producer, and it was to a large extent the farm crisis of the 1980s that first caused Iowans to question their political affiliations.

The 1988 presidential elections at the end of Ronald Reagan’s final term of office saw the state vote 55.1% Democrat for the first time ever. What was on voters’ minds, presumably, was the mass depopulation that had occurred during the last few years due to the closure of farms, not to mention the high increase in the rates of farmer suicides, alcoholism, divorce, and child abuse. Iowans may have been right to blame the Republicans – the tailspin began in 1980, when record production collided with the loss of export markets due to the White House-imposed Soviet grain embargo, causing commodity prices and land values to plummet (by 1982, net farm income adjusted for inflation was lower than during the Great Depression). 

Iowa’s reputation as a major swing state in presidential elections has since been cemented. The state voted heavily Democrat in 1992, at 43.35% versus 37.33%, and even more heavily Democrat in 1996, at 50.31% versus 39.92%, but 2000 and 2004 saw differences at the polls of less than a percentage point, with the Republicans taking it after Bush Jr.’s first term at 49.92% versus 49.28%. In 2008, landing a key victory for the Obama campaign, Iowans swung Democrat again by a wide margin – 54.04% versus 44.74%.

No wonder the president comes here as often as he can. Last March he was in Iowa City, delivering a speech on health-care at the university, and afterwards – as the people who work in that fine store never tire of telling you – he visited the Prairie Lights bookshop, to buy books for his daughters. The event was covered in detail in all the local papers, of course, but The Washington Post saw fit to report on it too.

“‘Well, this used to be my favorite place,’ Obama told the owner of Prairie Lights,” observed the Post. “He had mentioned the shop in his speech, noting that it has been offering health-insurance benefits to full-time employees for the last 20 years, only to see premiums shoot up 35 percent last year, making it harder to afford the same coverage.”

By August this year, during a two-day tour of the state that was effectively a pre-campaign move against Republican candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, Obama’s hopes of health-care reform were lying in tatters. His speeches now were about partisan gridlock in congress, and the message was clear – it was the Tea Partyers’ fault that the US’s credit-rating had been downgraded, sending markets plummeting and the financial world into fear.

To be fair, Obama had been in Iowa in June talking about job creation, but the blame-game theme appears to sum up what progressive Iowans now think of the incumbent – he’s become an ineffective evader. During a discussion on the subject after a reading at the abovementioned Prairie Lights, a prominent local attorney told me of his disappointment. “Clinton wouldn’t have stood for this,” he said. “He would have used the force of his personality to get congress on his side. Obama is too damned polite.”

And as if to prove he really can’t win, in Washington DC on Thursday 8 September, just hours before he addressed a joint sitting of congress on his jobs plan, the president was getting it in the neck for being too interested in Iowa. The source of the attack was the Democrat congresswoman Maxine Waters, who demanded that the US’s first African-American president show he cares as much about unemployed blacks as he does about Iowa’s swing voters.

As Waters told the online news site Politico: “There are roughly three million African-Americans out of work today, a number nearly equal to the entire population of Iowa. I would suggest that if the entire population of Iowa, a key state on the electoral map and a place that served as a stop on the president’s jobs bus tour were unemployed, they would be mentioned in the president’s speech and be the beneficiary of targeted public policy. So, one question to be answered this evening is, are the unemployed in the African-American community, including almost 45 percent of its youth, as important as the people of Iowa?”

What Waters surely does know but isn’t saying is this – the answer to her last question is “yes”. If Obama loses Iowa he may well lose his presidency, which will make any hope of a targeted jobs plan for African-Americans a distant memory. What will a loss in Iowa mean for the rest of the world? With Rick Perry in the White House, the answer here is almost too ghastly to contemplate. DM

Read more:

  • “Maxine Waters to Obama on unemployment: Iowans or blacks?” in Politico;
  • “Obama picks up books for his girls at Iowa City’s Prairie Lights,” in the Washington Post.

Photo: The White House Flickr stream


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