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Yes, Iowa Still Matters

<p>The four hour drive from Des Moines to the northwest corner of Iowa—zigzagging between acre upon acre of cornfields—would seem to confirm everything pundits say about Iowa: It’s <a href=”http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2012/01/03/is-iowa-too-white-to-kick-off-the-presidential-selection-process” target=”_blank”>too homogenous, rural</a> and <a href=”http://prospect.org/article/does-iowa-caucus-still-matter” target=”_blank”>farm-centric</a> to be playing a key role in the election of the leader of a teeming, multicultural, increasingly urbanized super power. Its political proclivities aren’t relevant to the broader contest, its endorsement of little meaning in divining the will of voters in other parts of the country.</p><p>All of this is entirely wrong.</p><p>Iowa is far from homogenous: Zoom in and Iowa’s internal political geography provides a microcosm of the country at large—a blue northeast, a red south and interior west. And its retail, face-to-face politics are a valuable test of a candidate’s versatility and vitality. </p><p>But there’s another reason Iowa deserves to keep its spot as a American political capital: Despite being home to just 3 million people, about 2.9 million of whom are white, Iowa is the state most reflective of the nation’s most vital swing region—a culturally diverse, politically moderate swath of the country that transcends state boundaries and has proved decisive in American politics for the better part of two centuries. </p><p>Ever since the first Euro-American settlers poured into Iowa in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the state has been an ethnological mosaic, a place where cultural diversity was not only expected and tolerated, but where no one group was expected to dominate. In this way—neither an Anglo-Protestant led “melting pot” (as in the New England-influenced northernmost tier of the country) nor hierarchical, post-plantation society like the lowland south—Iowa exemplifies a vital, often ignored, and politically consequential American regional culture that I call ‘the Midlands,’ and which is central to American presidential politics. </p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>When it comes to political geography, </b>our most abiding fissures are not urban versus rural, “North” against “South” or the coasts against the interior. Rather, they are between nearly a dozen dominant regional cultures, most of which can be traced back to the distinct European colonial cultures that first took root on the eastern and southern rims of what is now the United States. These cultures spread across much of the continent in mutually exclusive settlement bands, laying down the institutions, symbols and cultural norms later arrivals would encounter and, by and large, assimilate into. Once you know this pattern of settlement, you can recognize it in county-level data on everything from health statistics and economic mobility to gun violence and, yes, voting patterns, be it the general election of 1860, 1916, or 2008, or the presidential primaries of 2012. </p><br><p> One of these regional cultures is what I refer to as the ‘Midlands,’ which, due to its moderate<b> </b>nature—community-minded yet uncomfortable with government intervention—has always been the essential swing region of our national politics. The Midlands was founded in the 1680s by English Quakers, who believed in man’s inherent goodness and thus welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay. It was an ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German rather than British majority at the time of the Revolution—a place where a given national or religious group could found their own towns or urban neighborhoods and retain their language and religious practices, without anyone batting an eye. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, it spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic. </p><p>Midland culture began in the late 17th century in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, northern Delaware and Maryland. From there, it spread through central Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, northern Missouri, most of Iowa, southern Ontario, the eastern halves of the Dakotas and Nebraska, even to bits of Kansas. Over eight generations, this westward column of settlement attracted unusual numbers of non-British immigrants—Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Czechs and Poles among them—to its advancing edge, even as it was sandwiched between the highly assimilative, culturally intolerant Yankee stream to their north and the supremely individualistic, often rough mannered Scots-Irish frontiersmen on their southern flank, for whom orderly government was itself seen as a threat to personal sovereignty and freedom. </p><p>The Midlanders shared the Yankee’s communitarian ethos and commitment to middle class interests, but not their faith in government, as so many of them had fled from European tyrannies. This has made their settlement zone—the places where they were the ones to establish the cultural norms, institutions and assumptions that newcomers would assimilate to—a political battleground, often serving as the decisive factor in the most heated political contests of our history. </p><p>The Midlands’ political role has been particularly profound when it comes to the presidential election map because its population—37 million today—is stretched across three of history’s key battleground states, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri, where many contests have been won or lost. It’s a substantial part of the electorate in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.</p><p>But only one state was colonized almost entirely by the great flume of Midland settlement. It’s in this state alone that Midlands regional culture had overwhelming control—a free hand to build the institutional, constitutional and legal underpinnings of one of our constituent republics without having to compromise to the strong government proclivities of the Yankees or the libertarian imperative of Greater Appalachians. That state is Iowa. </p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>In the middle decades of the 19th century, </b>the advancing front of the Midlands settlement stream crossed the Mississippi and spread across the gently rolling landscape of what is now Eastern Iowa. The settlement was characteristically mixed, a checkerboard of ethnic enclaves, many of them committed to retaining their cultural and religious practices. Most did so successfully right into the second quarter of the 20th century. “These strong ties to the original settlement cultures— Danish Lutherans, Germans ’48-ers, Irish Catholics—a lot of people have retained them even now,” says Michael Gartner, Pulitzer Prize winning former editor of the <i>Register</i> and Ames’ <i>Daily Tribune</i> and owner of the minor league Iowa Cubs.</p><p>“Iowa is a state that was basically constructed by immigrants,” says Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt. “Once the first outsiders settled somewhere, they attracted others from the same ethnic group. Where they came from has a great deal of influence on where you stand generations later, because values and things are passed down that leaves a strong imprint,” especially in a place that experienced relatively little in-migration later on. </p><br><p>The legacy is everywhere and obvious on the landscape. Dutch separatists founded Pella, today home to an annual Tulip Festival, the Guinness world record for the largest wooden clog dance (2605 participants) and an electorate every bit as conservative as its ethnographic counterparts in western Michigan. Pennsylvania Quakers established Oskaloosa, complete with what’s now William Penn University and the annual statewide Quaker meeting site. Yankee missionaries from the Andover Theological Seminary outside Boston sought to make Iowa the “Massachusetts of the West,” founding an academy town in Denmark and a college at Grinnell, where a New England town green and the Congregational church still occupy half the land fronting the principle downtown intersection. Hessian Pietists, persecuted in their home country, settled the seven villages of the Amana colony and lived communally and self-sufficiently right into the mid-1930s; the tidy, uniform villages are popular tourist sites today. Refugees from the failed German socialist revolution of 1848 (dubbed “’48ers”) streamed into the Mississippi ports by the tens of thousands, founding German-language newspapers and cultural institutions which, in turn, made the state more attractive to their countrymen; the language was suppressed during World War I, but you still find communities celebrating <i>Maifest</i>, <i>Oktoberfest</i> and <i>Weinachtsfest</i> (Christmas Festival) each year, and a giant bronze <a href=”http://gahc.org/LadyGermania.htm” target=”_blank”>Lady of Germania</a> greets those crossing into the state at Davenport. </p><p>This very Midland tradition of having many cultures living side by side while retaining their respective differences yielded a political landscape that’s anything but homogenous. There is a marked and consistent <a href=”http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/state.php?f=0&amp;fips=19&amp;year=2012″ target=”_blank”>geographic divide</a> in statewide voting behavior, with counties in the western half and southernmost strip of the state—be they rural or urban—consistently voting Republican in federal contests, the rest of the state consistently voting Democratic, whether in the sparsely populated cropland on the north-central border or in newly hip Des Moines. Why? “It has to do with immigration patterns,” says former Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “You have to look at who settled Iowa where and when, the different types of people and the political attitudes they brought regarding government and public service.”</p><p>The northeast and many of the northernmost tier of Iowan counties were settled via Minnesota with Norwegian Lutherans in the vanguard, bringing a heritage of state-sponsored religion—with all of its attendant ramifications for faith in public institutions—and broad public participation in politics. “In many respects, they were the Bernie Sanders social democrats of the 1850s, with communitarian norms and an ethic of tolerance,” says native son Kurt Meyer, a consultant to non-profit organizations active in Democratic politics in the area. Its people root for the Minnesota Twins, vote for Democrats, and rely on Minneapolis for flights and television. </p><p>In the east and Des Moines—where the land rolls and trees abound—’48-ers, German Catholics and Yankee New Englanders left their strongest mark, including a progressive ethos that drove a remarkable number of groundbreaking Iowa measures: Iowa was the first state to admit women to all degree programs at its state university (1857) and state bar association (1869); second to legalize inter-racial (1851) and gay and lesbian marriage (2007); first to elect a woman to public office (1869) and appoint one to statewide office (1871); and first to build a mosque (in 1934 in Cedar Rapids). “The one consistent thing about Iowa over time, whether it’s urban or rural, is the sense of fairness and equality,” says Gartner. “A lot of Iowa was settled by people fleeing oppression in Germany and that had an impact that’s been passed down from generation to generation.” The region—including Des Moines, the university town of Iowa City, and the manufacturing centers at Cedar Rapids, Dubuque—has leaned Democratic for years.</p><p>A strong Scots-Irish influence is still felt in the southernmost tier of counties, which were first settled via Missouri’s Little Dixie section. Relatively poor and rough, they were often looked down on—an attitude captured in the oft-repeated quip that if they should be ceded to Iowa’s southern neighbor it would increase the average intelligence of both states. These counties are reliably Republican today, as the party has become the default home for economic libertarians and evangelicals, two in Scots-Irish America. </p><p>Then there’s the western plains, where the land is flat, the roads always meet at ninety-degree angles and the television likely comes from Nebraska and South Dakota. The region was settled later, after the wave of ’48-ers had passed, and attracted fewer New Englanders or German and Irish Catholics from social justice-minded traditions. Conservative Dutch Reformed farmers from Pella colonized the northwest corner, founding what are now the deep red bastions of Orange City and Sioux Center. “Conservative religious traditions including a variety of conservative Catholic and evangelical ones are very strong in western Iowa, while in eastern Iowa it’s the mainline ones that dominate,” says political scientist Kedron Bardwell of Simpson College, who studies religion and politics. “The differences in settlement patterns express the individualistic versus communitarian traditions in those regions.”</p><p>Bardwell has data to prove it. Just after the 2012 presidential caucuses, he surveyed 704 Iowan clergy on their political views and found enormous variations. Evangelical clergy broke for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama 75 percent to 5 percent, while their Mainline protestant counterparts supported Obama 54-25 in the same matchup. Catholic priests favored Romney 49-21. A similar pattern emerged in views on legalized gay marriage and Obamacare, with Evangelicals and mainline protestant clergy taking diametrically opposing views and Catholics opposing legalization by 2-1. Catholic priests and mainline protestants found common ground in strongly supporting greater environmental protection, and a “path to citizenship” for certain illegal immigrants, measures evangelical pastors overwhelmingly opposed. “The culture wars and the theological are interlinked,” Bardwell says. </p><p>That’s made the west of the state lean Republican over the past two decades and the Dutch Reform-influenced northwest reliably so, having previously<b> </b>broken with much of the rest of the state to support Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Bob Dole in 1992.<b> </b>Which makes life hard for Kim Weaver, a social worker from O’Brien County in the far northwest who is challenging seven-term Republican congressman Steve King to represent the sprawling fifth district, which encompasses 39 counties, five television markets, and nearly half the state.</p><p>I met Weaver at a Mexican restaurant in an old A&amp;W building in Sheldon, where the food was excellent and authentic; Latino immigrants have been arriving in rural Iowa in significant numbers in recent years to meet labor shortages at meat processing plants. Twice customers entered, recognized Weaver, came over to say hello and whispered that they too were Democrats, as if part of an underground resistance movement. They constitute just 13 percent of O’Brien County’s registered voters. “This last Labor Day was the first time we had a Democratic float in the parade, so people were just so excited,” she noted. “People are coming out of the woodwork.”<br /></p><br><p>Like the rest of the state, Western Iowa is neighborly and civic minded, Weaver says, which raises the question as to why majorities rally to Rep. King, a Tea Party caucus member famous for comparing immigrants to dogs and who has sought to abolish the IRS, ObamaCare, the Violence Against Women Act and dogfighting regulations. Her answer: “They don’t see him as a libertarian, they see him as a good Christian supporting their values.” The anti-immigrant rhetoric makes little sense in a district that relies on newcomers to staff dairy and poultry barns, she argues, but distracts from laissez faire economic policies she believes her his constituents would not embrace. “If they ever read Ayn Rand, they’d be mortified.” </p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>So Iowa has its fine-scale political geography, </b>which candidates ignore at their peril. But<b> </b>what brings Iowans together is a fundamentally Midland ethic of pluralism, equality and fairness, one reinforced by living in what was long a landscape of family-owned farms and small town producers, an economy that nearly realized the Jeffersonian vision of economic and civic equality. For 30 years, the same statewide electorate sent both conservative Republican Chuck Grassley and liberal Democrat Tom Harkin to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, while swapping the governor’s mansion between centrist Republican Terry Branstad and moderate Democrats Tom Vilsack and Chuck Culver. “Iowans have a tolerance for different political viewpoints, but there’s a sense they that person has to be one of us, and both Chuck and Tom are definitely one of us,” says historian David McMahon of Kirkwood Community College. “There’s been a preference for divided government, so long as the actors are all seen as having integrity.”</p><p>As elsewhere in the Midlands, the statewide electorate has rallied together in watershed elections: Nearly every county went for Lincoln in 1860, FDR in 1932, JFK in 1960, LBJ in 1964, Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980. It’s been a bellwether for the national mood for much of its history: Ambivalent and regionally divided in tight elections, unanimous in omnibus contests.</p><p>“I always like to define Iowa as the most moderate state in the country,” says longtime Republican congressman Jim Leach, a national leader of the party’s moderate wing who won 15 terms in the state’s most Democratic district. “For instance, there’s this outside assumption that all Iowa farmers are Republican, but that’s not the case. What is the case is that in good times the Iowa farm economy leans strongly Republican and in difficult times its Democratic. They don’t want to have huge liberal programs or big deficits—life is something you earn—but many of the other issues are personal.” </p><p>They also reward hard work, which many say played a decisive role in Jodi Ernst’s surprise victory over a less visible Democratic candidate in last year’s contest to replace retiring Sen. Harkin. She campaigned in all 99 of Iowa’s counties—a feat known as “the full Grassley”—and famously linked a childhood spent “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” with knowing “how to cut pork” in an amusing and highly effective <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9Y24MFOfFU” target=”_blank”>television ad</a>. “One of the things Harkin, Grassley, Branstad and Ernst had in common is they worked their butts off,” says Yepsen. “They’re out there, moving around and being visible.” Presidential candidates, he says, should take note.</p><p>They should also be aware of ongoing changes in what was once the archetypical farm state. Agriculture has continued its 80-year process of consolidation, with technology allowing ever fewer people to farm ever-greater areas. As a result, rural counties have been shrinking, downtown businesses have been in retreat and income inequality has grown. Meanwhile, Des Moines is booming, with suburbs expanding across the croplands to its south and west, and a thriving insurance and financial services sector. Agriculture is still the dominant economic sector in a state blessed with extraordinary soils, but only now accounts for about a fifth of the economy. Ethanol subsidies are no longer an unquestioned good, particularly among fiscally conservative Republicans; and Latino immigration is changing the complexion of some rural counties and their elected officials, though without decisive effect beyond the municipal level.</p><p>And, as elsewhere in the country, the state GOP has grown far more conservative—in Iowa’s case because of evangelical engagement with politics since the 1980s and 1990s. The party’s caucus goers chose Mike Huckabee as their nominee in 2012, Bush back in 2000 and at this writing appear to be backing another Christian conservative, Ted Cruz, who <a href=”http://www.quinnipiac.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/iowa/release-detail?ReleaseID=2305″ target=”_blank”>recently surged ahead</a> of another, Ben Carson. State democrats haven’t experienced such a shift: They’ve gone for safe, center-left options: Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. Hillary Clinton has been outpolling Bernie Sanders by wide margins.</p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>Which brings us back to Iowa’s role in the presidential nominating process. </b>Here is a state that reflects the political priorities of the country’s greatest swing region, one whose caucus-goers expect candidates to come to them, and where the media markets are so fractured they frustrate advertising-only campaigning. “It’s a place where you can’t just come and carpet bomb voters, you also have to get out there and meet people and take tough questions,” says Tim Albrecht, a former spokesman for Gov. Branstad now with the political consultancy Redwave Digital in Des Moines. “We don’t have to correctly predict the presidential nominees—we’re a winnowing state. That’s why Iowa matters.”</p><p> Reflective of a far greater and more contested swath of the country than New Hampshire, Iowa also benefits from having caucuses, which require a far greater level of commitment from participants than do primaries. “Going out in the cold and dark for a caucus in January is a pretty committed political act,” notes Yepsen. “Iowa as a whole isn’t reflective of the country, but the people who actually show up at the caucuses do look a lot like the people who show up on the floor of the national conventions.” </p><p>In the 43 years since the state accidentally found itself leading the primary process, caucus goers here have embraced their role in the process. “Iowans like to please and they don’t want to look like rubes, so it’s a very informed electorate, probably the most informed the candidates will run into,” says Gartner, who is active in Democratic politics. “They become very knowledgeable about everything from farm subsidies and Obamacare to ISIS and social security. It’s a great way to weed out the weak.”</p><br>

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