Trump Won Iowa Easily In 2016, But His Trade War Is Putting It In Play For 2020

Top Democrats are even with Trump in head-to-head polls, while his approval rating sits in the low 40s in a must-win state.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to the media in Des Moines after arriving by helicopter and before attending the Io
Presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to the media in Des Moines after arriving by helicopter and before attending the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 15, 2015.

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa ― Jeff Jorgensen is the kind of guy the president can count on.

The co-chairman of the Pottawattamie County Republican Party calls Donald Trump the greatest president of his lifetime and the impeachment proceedings against him “a hoax.” Jorgensen has taken to leading protests in front of the Council Bluffs office of the Democratic congresswoman who voted to support the impeachment investigation.

“Donald Trump is being harassed,” he said after a recent gathering of the county GOP’s central committee in an austere meeting room of the local library. “If they want to get rid of the guy, let’s have the election.”

In Iowa, Jorgensen has plenty of company. At the state GOP’s annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner last week, hundreds of local party activists like him cheered and whooped when keynote speaker and Trump’s most vocal Senate defender Lindsey Graham predicted, “Donald Trump is going to kick their ass.”

But Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, also offered this quiet warning: “If we keep Iowa, it all works. If we lose Iowa, it don’t work.”

It was a sober moment in an evening otherwise celebrating Trump’s willingness to fill the federal courts with conservative judges “as far as the eye can see” while slashing taxes and business regulations. Iowa, with only six electoral votes, is uniquely positioned to thwart Trump’s goal of a second term ― an outcome that at this moment is looking possible, even promising, for Democrats.

Recent polling shows Trump’s approval ratings in the low 40s in the state. In last year’s midterm elections, Democrats flipped two Republican House seats, thanks largely to a surge of anti-Trump voters in the Des Moines suburbs and smaller cities.

“I think there’s opportunity here. We saw that here in ’18,” said Matt Paul, a consultant who ran eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s caucus operation in the state in 2016.

That opportunity could become even more enticingly real if Trump continues his trade war with China and other countries, Paul said, because the retaliatory tariffs have hammered Iowa’s farmers, slashing their income and increasing bankruptcies.

“They’re looking for permission to support a Democrat,” Paul said of farmers and others in rural communities who depend on a healthy agricultural economy. “From a policy standpoint, he’s setting this up beautifully for us.”

It’s a danger that Graham, for one, recognized clearly in his speech: “To the Iowa farmer, hang in there. It’s going to get better.”

Thanks (In Part) To The Bernie Bros

Jessica Borrer and Anna Shoeman remember caucus night 2016 clearly. The two sisters were supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic contest, and people around them were grumbling: If Sanders didn’t win, they were going to vote for Trump or not vote at all.

“They hated Hillary for some reason,” said Shoeman, a 39-year-old loan underwriter for Wells Fargo.

Nearly four years later, as they waited with their mother to enter Saturday’s Sanders rally at Drake University in Des Moines, the sisters didn’t know if those particular caucus-goers had followed through on their threats.

Janet Shoeman (left) and her daughters, Anna Shoeman and Jessica Borrer, attend a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in Des Moines
Janet Shoeman (left) and her daughters, Anna Shoeman and Jessica Borrer, attend a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in Des Moines on Nov. 9, 2019.

A significant number, though, apparently did. A full 13% of male Democratic voters in Iowa supported Trump, compared to 9% nationally. In all, Clinton won just 88% of Iowa Democrats in 2016, while then-President Barack Obama had won 95% of them four years earlier. The result: Iowa went from supporting Obama in 2012 by 6 percentage points to backing Trump in 2016 by 10 points. Among the six states that flipped from Obama to Trump, Iowa had the largest swing, bigger even than Ohio’s 11 points.

Yet two years later, enough Iowans had soured on Trump that two of the state’s three congressional House seats in Republican hands were won by Democrats: Abby Finkenauer in the district that covers northeast Iowa and Cindy Axne in the district that covers the southwestern part of the state, including Council Bluffs.

That anti-Trump backlash appears to continue today. Besides the recent surveys showing his approval rating in the low 40s, an Emerson College poll from last month found Trump essentially tied in head-to-head matchups with the three top Democratic candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Sanders.

Perhaps more important for the eventual Democratic nominee, even Sanders’ supporters appear to recognize the need to consolidate behind that person if the goal is to deny Trump a second term.

Isaac Brondsun, a 19-year-old Grinnell College student, said he understands that much of that burden falls on his cohort, the stereotypical young, white, male “Bernie Bro” who wound up voting for Trump or Green Party nominee Jill Stein or no one at all in 2016. “Now that we see what Donald Trump has done, maybe they’ll see the importance of voting against him,” Brondsun said as he waited to enter the Sanders event.

Wade Lester, an apprentice electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local in Des Moines, said many of his fellow union members cast ballots for Trump three years ago after caucusing for Sanders 10 months earlier. “They believed what Trump said in his speeches, and now none of that is happening, so they aren’t going to vote for him again,” Lester said. “And some of them won’t even admit they voted for him the last time.”

An Unintended Casualty Of Trade War

Two nights earlier, at the Pottawattamie Republicans meeting, Jorgensen announced that he would stage another impeachment protest in front of Rep. Axne’s district office. Only this time, he said, he would ask participants to arrive at 3 p.m. while telling local media it would begin at 4 p.m. ― to make it more likely they’d have a bigger crowd on hand by the time the cameras showed up.

“Donald Trump has done an outstanding job,” he told HuffPost later. “He’s going to go down as one of the best presidents.”

Yet most of the night’s discussion was not about impeachment but about local issues. The five dozen or so activists listened to updates from city, county and state elected officials about new sheds for snowplows and whether they were situated too remotely for crews to get to them safely in storms. They heard updates about the continued flooding from the Missouri River. And they asked about the possibility of extending local tax relief to farmers, who have been hurt not only by the flooding but also by the president’s trade war.

Mary Ann Hanusa, a local Iowa state representative who attended the meeting, said that farmers in the western part of the state understand the sacrifices that Trump has asked of them and that they continue to back him. “They are willing to wait out the situation at this point,” she said.

State GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann agreed. So long as a solution arrives in the next several months, he said, farmers and others in rural areas will continue supporting Trump. “They’re sticking with him,” he told HuffPost after the Lincoln-Reagan dinner.

For Trump to win Iowa next year, he will need them to stick with him. Indeed, ever since he took office, that has been part of his campaign’s reelection strategy: to replicate his 2016 path to victory, which lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million but managed to squeak out wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined margin of just 77,744 votes.

Donald Trump presented himself as the change candidate. Unfortunately, the changes that he brought have not been good for Iowa. Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party

But a manufacturing recession, caused in large part by Trump’s trade war, may be swinging Pennsylvania and Michigan away from him. Losing both of those states with every other state going the same way it did in 2016 would leave Trump with 270 electoral votes, the exact number needed to win a second term. That means his Democratic opponent could win by taking those two states plus either, say, Wisconsin or Iowa.

And that is where the trade war’s damage to agriculture could play a major role, with farmers in both Wisconsin and Iowa suffering because of retaliatory tariffs imposed by China on soybeans, corn, pork and other commodities.

Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said Trump won the state in 2016 by promising to increase markets and profits for Iowa farms. “We have seen nothing but the opposite since he’s been in office,” Price said. “We’ve lost the markets that Iowans took decades to develop.”

He said the loss of farm income has led to problems for others that rely on the farmers’ success, such as the 160 workers who were laid off at a John Deere factory in eastern Iowa. “This is having ripple effects across the state,” Price said. “I think the president has a big problem and Republicans have a big problem. ... Donald Trump presented himself as the change candidate. Unfortunately, the changes that he brought have not been good for Iowa.”

David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican consultant, has a more sanguine view of Trump’s chances, particularly if Democrats nominate one of their more progressive contenders. “If Warren is the candidate, I think she struggles in a place like Iowa,” he said.

What’s more, he believes Republicans in the rural areas will stick with Trump, despite their personal misfortunes, because of the increasingly partisan divide between Iowa cities and the rest of the state.

“The trend in rural counties is that they’re continuing to go even further red,” Kochel said, adding that Trump’s lower approval ratings do not necessarily mean he will lose. “Trump can win when he’s upside down. He proved it in 2016 and he can do it again in 2020.”