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Democrats Fail to Persuade Swathes of Rural America’s Heartlands

Chris McGreal
Des Moines, Iowa

America’s rural heartland stuck firmly with Donald Trump on Tuesday, dashing Joe Biden’s hope of a decisive victory that would have allowed him to claim he had reunited the country, as well as undercutting Democratic expectations of winning the US Senate.
Results across the Midwest showed the US still firmly divided as Trump again won a solid victory in Iowa, a state that twice voted for Barack Obama, and the Republicans held on to crucial Senate seats targeted by the Democrats.
Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, a close Trump ally, proclaimed that the Democrats were now history in her state as the president’s base turned out in force.
“We have proven without a doubt that Iowa is a red state,” she told a rowdy victory rally in Des Moines where few Republicans wore masks.
Trump was ahead in Iowa by more than seven points with over 90% of the vote counted, a victory just two points short of his 2016 win.
From Wisconsin to Iowa and Missouri, Trump’s support in rural counties generally held up or strengthened. In some states that delivered him victory. In others, such as Wisconsin, it has left the race tighter than expected and if he loses there it will be because of a surge in the urban vote for Biden.
But the president’s solid performance in rural America could cost the Democrats control of the Senate after what the party regarded as its best shot at two midwestern seats in Iowa and Kansas flopped.
Iowa’s Republican senator, Joni Ernst, beat her Democratic rival, Theresa Greenfield, by more than six points in a race that opinion polls for many months said would be closer. Ernst won the seat from a Democrat in 2014.
Results showed that the president dominated in rural counties that he took from the Democrats four years ago. Opinion polls said that in recent weeks voters primary concern shifted from coronavirus to the economy which helped swing independent voters the president’s way to supplement his core support.
“The economy was doing well before coronavirus. That was a big thing for me, said Elysha Graves as she clutched her toddler after voting for Trump in Urbanale, Iowa.
“They tried to blame him for the pandemic. I don’t know how anybody else would have handled it. It’s a hard situation. He just seems real. He’s not a politician. He’s more relatable. I trust him more than I trust Biden.”
Left: Elysha Graves and her son Parker Peters of Urbandale Iowa pose for a photo after Graves cast her vote on election day in Urbandale, Iowa. Right: A sign informs residents of a voting location on election day in Urbandale, Iowa. Photographs by KC McGinnis/The Guardian
Democrats disappointed
Iowa is not a crucial state for Biden but his failure to significantly reduce the size of Trump’s 2016 victory there is evidence that the Democrats failed to persuade swathes of rural America that the party had much to offer them or was even paying attention to their communities and concerns.
Biden was counting on the president defeating himself with his style of governing and handling of coronavirus as the economy collapsed. But large numbers of midwestern voters were prepared to forgive Trump his hostile tweeting and other sins because, in a widely heard refrain, “he is not a regular politician”, a quality they regard as central to their support of him.
They also did not blame Trump for the economic downturn, saying it would have happened no matter who was in the White House. While the president’s handling of coronavirus was widely scorned in other places, there is a popular view in the rural Midwest that Trump got it right when he opposed lockdowns as too economically damaging.
In a region where state and local government requirements to wear a mask offended some as an infringement on American freedoms, Trump’s assertion that the cure was worse than the disease in arguing against shutting businesses to contain the virus went down well. That view held even as Covid-19 cases surged across the region ahead of the election.
Trump also did well with agricultural communities where he gained credit with farmers like Aaron Schatz for taking on what he regarded as an inevitable showdown with China over agriculture, even if sanctions hurt farmers in the short term.
“I’m more for Trump than I was before. As a dairy farmer, I feel like I’m sitting better than I have in 10 years,” the fifth-generation farmer said in August.
In Des Moines, Sarah Miller, was voting for Trump a second time because she said he’s good for the economy and farm families.
“I voted for him based on my economic beliefs. I’m a farm family background. I feel he supports agriculture better,” she said.
The evidence that Trump retained his appeal for many rural voters could be found even in midwestern states that went to Biden. Six former Democratic mayors in upper Minnesota signed a letter in support of the president and condemning Biden and the Democrats as out of touch with working people and rural America. They praised Trump for cutting taxes, standing up to China to protect American jobs and said he “fought for the working class”.
Democratic support for the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May also complicated Biden’s campaign.
Opinion polls showed two-thirds of voters supported BLM in the early weeks but that fell sharply as demonstrations, and at times rioting and looting, spread across the country and the movement led calls to “defund the police”, widely if wrongly interpreted as a call to shut down police departments. The Trump campaign’s attempts to paint Democrats as anti-police and the party of rioters played well in parts of the Midwest.
Trump even increased his support in the Iowa county that swung more heavily from Obama to the president than any other in the US four years ago. Trump took 63% of the vote in Howard county, up five points on his 2016 victory.

Familiar feeling
Laura Hubka, chair of the county Democrats who did not expect to win the county back but had hoped to make inroads into Trump’s vote to help swing Iowa to Biden, was despairing of the result.
“This feels all too familiar,” she said.
Hubka said that the Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police damaged Biden in part because voters believed they would continue if he was elected.
Neil Shafer, the Republican county chair, said he noticed a surge in people asking for Trump signs in recent weeks and in first time voters registering, particularly young men.
“I did not run across anybody that I have known in the last four years that voted for Trump in ‘16 that weren’t going to again. I knew a lot of new voters who wanted to vote for Trump because they became so impressed with him. And just the law and order and all the riots and, and honestly, I think Covid and the government oppression of people. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong but people don’t like that, especially Midwesterners,” he said.
Shafer remained confident the president will be reelected.
“I think Trump’s gonna pull this out,” he said.
If the country is divided, so is the state with strong anti-Trump views in the cities.
Matt Lassen, 25, was voting in Des Moines for the first time because he so dislikes the president.
“A lot more people my age, a lot more people I know, voted this year. And I think you get pumped up one or two ways. I think you get pumped up about a candidate you love, or I think you get pumped up out of bad leadership,” he said.
Lassen was ambivalent about Biden though.
“I don’t hate him. I like him. But you know, I think it’s funny. Everybody’s been asking me, is it more Biden or is it more not Trump? And I think it’s a little bit more not Trump,” he said.
With the outcome of the election still in the balance, and Trump prematurely proclaiming victory and challenging the legitimacy of continuing to count votes, concerns have turned to what happens next.
“I think either who no matter who wins, there’s going to be people upset and that there’s going to be issues in various cities,” said Miller. “Either way, there’s going to be people that are very emotional, and that usually doesn’t end well. There’s going to be people upset and there’ll be folks that take that out of control.
Judy Ellenburger, who voted for Trump for second time, was sure that if the president loses it will be because the results have been rigged.
“We know that there’s been massive cheating. Stolen ballots, thrown away ballots, votes changed,” she said. “I think it will be turbulent. The other side, the Democrats, the people they’ve stirred up, will raise a stink no matter what. They’ve said they’re going to. They have people poised in various cities around the country who are ready to do more rioting, burn things.”

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