Why Democrats keep losing in rural America

Iowa’s retreat is not a great way to mend fences in rural America.

A sign for the Iowa Caucuses is seen in a window on a downtown skywalk, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Strom Lake, Iowa • The Democrats are being outdone by the kickers and Busch Light drinkers from here on the edge of the great plains all the way to Appalachia, where the Republicans walk away.

So what do the Democrats do?

Dump the Iowa caucuses into the ditch. At the hands of President Biden, no less. He agreed that South Carolina’s primary should go first on the presidential nominating calendar, displacing Iowa. The Democratic National Committee seems willing to oblige.

We get it. Let someone else take the lead. But spending Iowa isn’t a great way to mend fences in rural America — where the Democratic brand is nearly unmarketable.

Iowa’s pride of place has been hated by the Democratic big shots since the caucuses came to prominence half a century ago because money could not control the outcome. Jimmy Carter burst in from Plains, Ga., with nothing but a toothy smile and an honest streak. Candidates were forced to meet actual voters in village dinners across the state. We’ve taken our vetting role seriously – you’d better be ready to analyze Social Security’s actuarial prospects.

Candidates weren’t crazy about it. The media hated Storm Lake ice in January. We did a good, if imperfect, job of winning the field. With New Hampshire, we set things up so that South Carolina could often be decisive, which it won’t be anymore.

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Iowa has problems. We are too bright. The caucuses are complicated, confusing and clunky. The evening meetings in homes, school gyms and libraries are not fully accessible and are not as convenient as a primary school for people with jobs and children at home.

But diversity had an opportunity here. Barack Obama was brought to the White House. Iowa actively encouraged Black candidates to challenge the white establishment. Obama beat Hillary Clinton here. Iowa had no problem giving a gay man, Pete Buttigieg, and a Jewish democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, the top two tickets to New Hampshire last cycle.

Black, white or Latino, it’s an organization that matters in Iowa. You have to herd your people to the caucus and keep them in your pen for an hour while other campaigns try to poach them. It is a town hall democracy. Obama won with it. Candidates who ran weak campaigns have something to blame. Latinos in Storm Lake were overwhelming Sanders. Julian Castro can complain.

Speech leaders say Iowa messed up by not reporting the results quickly. The problem was that a mobile phone app recommended by the Democratic National Committee for the Iowa Democratic Party had crashed. The democratic process worked – the app did not.

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Anyone looking for an excuse to extort Iowa and alienate rural voters could find one more. The time was ripe.

Biden owes Iowa nothing. He finished fourth in the caucuses. He had a big time for Representative James Clyburn, the Dean of Democrats in South Carolina, an endorsement right before the Palmetto State primary, where Black voters overwhelmingly beat Biden. It was sweet payback. We get that, too.

Actually, the caucuses were not the best thing for Iowa. The TV commercials don’t stop. It puts you in a bad mood to think that everything is going wrong all the time. We asked good questions, and the candidates gave good answers, then they forgot all about it. Despite all the attention, nothing really happened to stop the long decline as the state’s Main Streets deteriorated, farmers disappeared and the undocumented stayed in the shadows. Republican or Democrat, the result was pretty much the same. At least the Republicans will cut your taxes.

So it’s only right that South Carolina goes first. Iowa can be done without the hassle. The Republicans are sticking to Iowa; Democrats consider it a lost cause. No Democratic state senator lives in much of western Iowa. Republicans control the governor’s office, the Legislature and soon the entire congressional delegation. No one organized the thousands of registered Latino voters in meatpacking towns like Storm Lake. The Democrats are hardly trying. The results show it.

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The old brick factories along the huge Mississippi River are dark, thanks to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and everyone else who sold us out on “free trade.” Keokuk, the river’s gateway city, was once a bustling industrial and shipping hub but recently lost its hospital. Landing a casino in rural Jefferson was your best hope to save the town. You basically can’t haul a pig load to the packinghouse in a collection anymore: You need a contract and an idiot. The barn sale and open markets are great memories. John Deere tractor cabs will be made in Mexico, not Waterloo. Our rivers are polluted with manure. It tends to frustrate those left behind, and resentment builds to the point of rebellion when it becomes clear that the government is not here to help.

It’s hard to feel from 30,000 feet. So Donald Trump landed in Sioux City on the eve of the mid-term elections to claim his pledge before the big crowd beat the gales out of Nebraska. “Iowa’s way of life is under siege,” Trump said. “It is a declining nation. We are a failing nation.”

They loved him. Democrats see the crowd as pathetic and told Iowa to get lost.

(Photo by Tom Wallace) Arthur Cullen

Arthur Cullen editor of The Storm Lake Times and author of “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.” This article first appeared in The New York Times.


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