CRESTON, Iowa — Re Nae Fulton was willing to take a chance on Donald Trump after she voted for Barack Obama twice and saw little change in her small rural community in southwest Iowa. Trump was “something new,” she said, a political outsider who might stick up for “regular Americans” like her. Maybe he could finally spark some reinvestment and change.
“Silly us!” Fulton, 58, a beautician who manages a hotel in the nearby town of Corning, now says. “He had everything handed to him … Everything had to be about him — me, me, me, why aren’t you bowing down to me?”
Fulton grew tired of his boorish behavior and bullying early on. She’s seen firsthand the impact of his administration’s punitive tariffs and other actions, with skyrocketing lumber prices hurting her husband’s contracting business. And she has been appalled by Trump’s handling of a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has sickened 105,000 and killed more than 1,500 in Iowa.
“We need somebody who is going to heal our country and bring people back together,” said Fulton. She plans to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
After a tumultuous first term, Trump has seen his support erode across the country, even in deeply conservative rural areas that have been a bedrock of his support, and he is racing to stem any lasting damage.
A series of national polls have shown a narrowing of his once-dominating margin in rural areas, and it has been even more pronounced in several Midwestern states that were key to his 2016 victory.
In Michigan, Trump won 56% of rural votes to Hillary Clinton’s 38%, according to 2016 exit polls. A New York Times/Siena College poll of the state earlier this month found Trump and Biden were essentially tied with rural voters.
In Wisconsin, Trump won 62% of rural votes in 2016, compared with Clinton’s 35%, according to exit polls. Last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found a split, with 50% of rural Wisconsin voters supporting Trump and 47% supporting Biden.
The same narrowing between the parties’ candidates has been seen in Iowa, a state that Trump won by more than nine points in 2016, and not only in the presidential contest. The state’s Senate race between Trump ally Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield has unexpectedly tightened, with Greenfield ahead of the incumbent in several recent polls. Ernst has been mocked since she was unable in a Thursday night debate to name the break-even price for soybeans — an example, Iowa Democrats said, of the senator being out-of-touch with the state.
Democrats are also dominating in polls of three of the state’s four congressional races.
In western Iowa where Fulton lives, Trump won 67% of votes in 2016, to Clinton’s 28%, according to exit polls. In late September, Trump had the support of 47% of likely voters in that part of the state, versus 41% for Biden, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll.
The Biden campaign has no illusions about winning the bulk of rural voters, but it sees softening Trump support as an opportunity to reduce the president’s margins in deeply conservative and rural areas. They hope the former vice president’s moderate message, heavy focus on pocketbook issues and promise to restore decency to politics will resonate with rural voters, especially independents and former Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016. Even slight shifts can be decisive in closely contested states.
Trump, pressing for support in the final weeks before election day, held a boisterous in-person rally in Des Moines on Wednesday that attracted thousands of unmasked people, even though the state has the seventh-highest rate of new coronavirus cases in the country and federal health officials have declared it a “red zone” of viral spread.
On Saturday the president was to visit Muskegon, a small city on Michigan’s mostly rural western coastline, then to Janesville, a small city in rural southern Wisconsin.
The Biden campaign has taken a different route, trying to be visible in every corner of the state without visiting as much. The campaign has invested heavily in television ads — including one featuring a western Pennsylvania farmer who is switching from Trump to Biden — and radio, with one ad targeting rural voters who are worried about young people moving out of small towns to bigger cities.
An “Early Vote Express” bus has been traveling to smaller towns the party has overlooked in previous years, and state Democratic leaders have been distributing yard signs and organizing phone banks focused on connecting with rural voters.
“This is really about meeting voters where they’re at and ensuring that they’re hearing from the campaign,” said Will McIntee, Biden’s rural outreach coordinator, an Iowa native now based in the state.
Trump’s favorite 2016 presidential election results map displays the outcomes by county, as he won 2,626 counties while Clinton won 487. The map is nearly entirely red, with scattered bursts of blue. Vendors outside his rallies sell T-shirts featuring the map and the message: “Can you hear us now?” The map, and Trump’s love of it, captures the entrenched rural-versus-urban political divide in America that has only deepened in recent years.
Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” harks back to the days when small towns were thriving and when rural school systems were better than urban ones. His grievances tend to resonate best in rural areas, allowing him to blame trade deals and undocumented immigrants for the lack of good-paying jobs in their communities while promising to revitalize their way of life. By his description, American cities are dangerous, mismanaged, rat-infested places to be avoided, despite the transformational renaissances that many urban communities have undergone in the past decade.
On the stump this year, Trump touts his trade deals — that wreaked havoc on agricultural export markets — and rural-friendly initiatives like expanding broadband and widening access to biofuels, popular with corn growers. Surrogates like Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, once a Georgia farmer, help spread his “America First” message to the voters. Biden’s past support for trade deals like NAFTA is scorned.
“We’ve had a permanent presence in key states around the country for years that has allowed us and the president to connect with rural voters on a personal level about the issues that matter,” said Samantha Zager, the deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign. “As a result, the Trump campaign is confident that we’ll win these states, and we’re not ceding any ground because we know Biden’s failed record on trade and his plans to destroy rural access to health care would disproportionately hurt these hardworking families.”
But that argument has not satisfied all the president’s targeted voters.
Alan Weisshaar, 55, a cattle, corn and bean farmer and Democrat, said that the promises Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016 “sounded pretty good for farmers.” Although he voted for Clinton in 2016, he was initially willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. But then came the trade wars, and export demand for corn and soybeans plummeted, a crisis made worse by the global shutdown after the pandemic. He estimates that the trade war has cost his operation $40,000 a year.
“Before he was elected he all about the little guy, this populist rhetoric,” he said. “But then he got us out of the trade treaties, like all of them, and I went from feeling like a pawn in his personal trade war to being collateral damage.”
Biden focuses on many of the same issues as Trump when talking about rural America — especially expanding broadband, strengthening health care and rebuilding infrastructure — and has told rural voters that Trump has failed to deliver for them, reminding them of the trade war, of the rural hospitals that have been closing, of promises that have gone unfulfilled.
Clinton was accused in her 2016 contest with Trump of taking rural and working-class Democrats for granted, famously not setting foot in Wisconsin or airing television ads there until a few days before Election Day. Wisconsin was one of three reliably Democratic states that flipped to Trump, giving him the presidency.
Democrats now are particularly focused on clawing back Obama voters who didn’t vote for Clinton. Across the country, more than 200 counties flipped from Obama to Trump; about a quarter of these are concentrated near the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. Nearly a third of Iowa’s 99 counties flipped.
“I don’t think Biden is going to win majority of the rural vote, but he’s closing the gap,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, author of “Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again In Rural America.” The national party needs to invest significantly in state outreach to win back some of these prairie states in the long run, she argues.
For now, Democrats have sought to capitalize on a key difference in the candidates’ upbringings: Biden grew up in a working-class family in Scranton, Pa., while Trump was born into a wealthy New York family.
The Biden campaign sees its radio ads as a key way to connect with rural and older voters, along with those who listen to stations geared toward Christians, Blacks and Latinos. During harvest time, underway now, farmers are spending even more time than usual in their trucks and tractor cabs, listening to the radio.
Jack Vanderflught is the chairperson of the Republican Party in Clarke County in southwest Iowa, which pivoted from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. He believes that was largely due to Clinton’s unpopularity and Trump’s unvarnished style and populist rhetoric, which drew in hundreds of new voters who stayed on the sidelines before. He is hopeful they will propel Trump again this year.
“We knew something was up in 2016 when we had people who showed up to our caucus we had never seen before,” said Vanderflught, a high school history teacher, referring to the Republican presidential caucus held in February. “We’ve had a lot more newer voters than we ever had. We just had people in their 40s who had never gone to a political event before.”
Iowa Republicans also insist there are voters who don’t publicly broadcast their support for Trump but like his stance on abortion and approves of his business-friendly practices.
Becky Rike, 70, a Republican and retired library director from Corning, said she was turned off by Trump in early June after his administration forcefully removed peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters from a street near the White House so he could pose for a photo with a Bible.
“I think he’s crazy,” Rike said. “He was trying to get the vote from the ones that don’t like Black people. For him to stand there and hold up the Bible? It pissed me off! It was the stupidest thing he could do!”
But she’s voting for him anyway.
“I’m loyal to my party,” she said. “And I think Biden’s too old. He acts senile.”
By mid-October, harvest was in full swing in southwestern Iowa, home to tidy farms, small towns dotted with churches and residents who are mostly White and conservative-leaning in their politics. On a recent brilliant fall day in Creston, the county seat of Union County, a steady stream of early voters showed up to cast their absentee ballots at the local courthouse.
More than 2,500 people had voted by the end of the week, the county auditor’s office said, with registered Republicans edging out Democrats by a few hundred ballots.
Creston, a community of about 7,700 centered around a historic train depot, hasn’t been as hard-hit from the coronavirus as other small towns in Iowa, in a county with only 190 cases and three deaths. But the pandemic has taken its toll. A Pizza Hut and sporting goods store are shutting down, and a longtime shoe store is in danger of closing, according to the mayor, Gabe Carroll.
In a state where nearly a third of its economy comes from agriculture, Iowa farmers are still reeling from trade disputes, floods and an August “derecho” storm that wiped out entire fields of crops. About $37 billion in coronavirus assistance and other relief, however, is driving net farm income up for the year, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department estimate.
That is giving some Trump supporters confidence, despite any worrisome signs.
Vince Taylor, 53, a crop insurance agent and farmer who is voting for Trump, said that most of his neighbors continue to believe that the president has tried to do right by them.
“Obviously the lowering of taxes is great,” Taylor said, “I think he’s really paid attention to the struggles of the American farmer. We’re out here trying to make ends meet and at the mercy of the markets and he realizes that.”
“That’s why a lot of people have voted for him,” Taylor said, “and will continue to do so.”
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The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.