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You Haven't Heard The Last Of Iowa This Election Cycle

Facing a heavy burden from trade and the coronavirus, "Iowa's just in a position to be in maybe more ready than other states to make a change" in November, says pollster J. Ann Selzer.
Facing a heavy burden from trade and the coronavirus, "Iowa's just in a position to be in maybe more ready than other states to make a change" in November, says pollster J. Ann Selzer.

Bringing up the Iowa caucuses should come with a trigger warning for Iowa Democrats like Patt Copley.

"I was in shock," Copley, who lives in Marshalltown, Iowa, said. "And then it just went on and on ... and on."

It's been a little more than five months since the debacle that was the Iowa caucuses. That first contest to pick a Democratic presidential nominee went horribly wrong thanks to a faulty smart phone app. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg claimed victory before the night was over and counting the results took days. The contest was one many in the Democratic Party were ready to put behind them.

Not so fast.

Both Republicans and Democrats are giving the state a lot of attention and money in the run-up to November. Many political watchers are calling the state a "toss-up."

Copley, a retired cardiac arrhythmia technician, volunteered and caucused for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won Marshall County in February. She is not excited to vote for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. But she is eager for Donald Trump to be a one-term president.

It's a similar situation she found herself in four years ago when voting for Hillary Clinton. She says back then she could sympathize with Trump voters who didn't like their options.

"Your basic poor or working poor or even middle class people were disgusted and wanted just to shake it up," Copley said — disgusted, she says, with the choice between Clinton and Trump.

Marshall is one of the many rural counties in Iowa that flipped from voting for Barack Obama twice to Trump in 2016. But this year, the local pork plant and the Iowa Veterans Home have both had COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mark Smith, who represents Marshalltown in the state legislature and took over as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party right after the caucus meltdown, says voters here are energized because they believe Trump's policies have hurt the state.

"The trade wars have hurt agriculture, which is so significant to our state," Smith said. "His saddling up to big oil has caused us problems with ethanol."

Rural Iowa went big for Trump in 2016 and he carried the state by nearly 10 points. Two years later, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds won her gubernatorial race while Democrats flipped two House seats.

"We are purple and woe to any chair that misses that point that Iowa is a swing state," Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, said.

That said, Kaufmann says he feels good about his party's registration numbers following very competitive caucuses on the Democratic side.

"We wondered if we wouldn't see registration numbers spike to a very large degree and it's hard sometimes to stop that spreading once it starts," Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann points to the recent North American free trade agreement, the USMCA, as a victory for Iowa farmers.

Polls here show Trump and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst's approval ratings are falling. That may be why last month Ernst tweeted a video challenging her Democratic opponent, real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, who she accuses of hiding from voters.

"I haven't heard Theresa Greenfield say one thing that [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer hasn't told her to say," Ernst said. "I'm challenging Ms. Greenfield to six debates, two each month, starting in August. Let's let the Iowans hear what we have to say."

Greenfield won her four-way June primary race last month with a record number of ballots cast — mostly by absentee. Iowa's Republican secretary of state had mailed every registered voter an absentee ballot request form to encourage voting from home during the pandemic.

Campaigning during a pandemic looks a lot different. There are fewer picnics and parades, and the Iowa State Fair was cancelled. A lot of events are held on video conferencing meetings.

But with or without the usual campaigning, there's a more favorable mood for Democrats in Iowa, says pollster J. Ann Selzer. She's the person behind the Iowa Poll published in the Des Moines Register.

"There has been a heavy burden that this state has carried that included issues with trade, with tariffs," Selzer said. "And then with the vulnerable industries like meat processing plants during COVID-19. Iowa's just in a position to be in maybe more ready than other states to make a change."

While Biden came in fourth during the caucuses, his campaign has announced a senior team here and he'll be back in Iowa later this month — in the form of a virtual event, of course. Copyright 2020 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.

Transcript:

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's been five months since the debacle that was the Iowa caucuses. That first contest in the Democratic presidential race went horribly wrong, thanks to a faulty smartphone app. But don't write Iowa off so fast. Both Republicans and Democrats are giving the state a lot of attention and money heading into November. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters explains why the state is getting labeled now a toss-up.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Bringing up the Iowa caucuses should come with a trigger warning for Iowa Democrats like Pat Copley.

PAT COPLEY: I was in shock. I think I was really in shock. And then it just went on and on and on.

MASTERS: Copley, who is a retired medical technician, lives in Marshalltown. She volunteered and caucused for Bernie Sanders, who won this county. Copley is not excited to vote for Joe Biden, although she is eager to make Donald Trump a one-term president. It's a similar situation she found herself in four years ago when voting for Hillary Clinton. She says back then she could sympathize with Trump voters.

COPLEY: So your basic poor or working poor or even middle-class people were disgusted and wanted just to shake it up.

MASTERS: This is one of the many rural counties in Iowa that flipped from voting for Barack Obama twice to Trump in 2016. But this year, the local pork plant and veterans hospital have both had COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mark Smith represents Marshalltown in the state legislature and took over as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party right after the caucus meltdown. He says voters here are energized because of President Trump's record.

MARK SMITH: The trade wars have hurt agriculture, which is so significant to our state. His saddling up to big oil has caused us problems with ethanol.

MASTERS: Rural Iowa went big for Trump in 2016. He carried the state by nearly 10 points. Two years later, a Republican won the governor's race here while Democrats flipped two House seats. Jeff Kaufmann is the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.

JEFF KAUFMANN: We are purple. And, you know, woe to any chair that misses that point that Iowa is a swing state.

MASTERS: Polls here show President Trump and Republican Senator Joni Ernst's approval rating are falling. That may be why last month, Ernst tweeted this video of herself standing next to her Harley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONI ERNST: So I'm challenging Ms. Greenfield to six debates, two each month, starting in August. Let's let Iowans hear what we have to say.

MASTERS: She's talking about her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. The real estate executive won her four-way primary last month with a record number of ballots cast, mostly by absentee. But campaigning during a pandemic looks a lot different. There are fewer picnics and parades. The Iowa State Fair was canceled. Instead...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And everybody, this is our first Zoom event, so we're waiting on Theresa's link to work correctly.

MASTERS: That was a Democratic fundraiser earlier this week. Those watching from home were munching on meals delivered to them from a local restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THERESA GREENFIELD: Again, I'm Theresa Greenfield. I'm a businesswoman. I'm a mother of four. I'm a farm kid.

MASTERS: With or without the usual campaigning, there's a more favorable mood for Democrats in Iowa, says pollster J. Ann Selzer.

J ANN SELZER: There has been a heavy burden that this state has carried that included issues with trade, with tariffs and then with the vulnerable industries like meat processing plants during COVID-19. Iowa's just in a position to be maybe more ready than some other states to make a change.

MASTERS: And while Joe Biden came in fourth during the caucuses, his campaign has announced a senior team here. And he'll be back in Iowa later this month in the form of a virtual event.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Marshalltown, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.