A tentative new narrative about the electoral politics of rural America has recently emerged among some Democrats. This delicate, hopeful tendril of thought suggests that President Trump has sold out some of his staunchest supporters — farmers — through an ill-advised trade war with China that has driven the already devastatingly low price of soybeans, the nation’s top agricultural export, even lower. Soybeans currently trade at around $9 per bushel — one to two dollars less than the per-bushel cost for farmers to produce them.
Progressive pundits posit other reasons that rural voters at large, not just farmers, may be nearing their last straw with GOP policy makers. The administration’s anti-immigrant agenda deprives both farms and small-town businesses of the willing low-wage workers they need to remain economically viable. And as rural populations continue to shrink in many regions, immigration is not only an opportunity to meet labor demands but also a matter of sustaining the number of people needed to keep schools and hospitals open and seats in local diners and movie theaters filled.
“The GOP has left soybean fields littered with $20 bills for enterprising Democratic presidential hopefuls to pick up,” remarked one New York Times columnist recently under a headline that asked “Has Trump Handed Democrats an Opening in Red America?” Rural America is “there for the taking,” one Democratic congressman told the Washington Post in May.
In June, a detailed analysis of voter demographics from the 2018 midterms yielded an unexpected revelation: Democrats lost voters in suburban areas but made significant gains in rural areas. This does not translate to the flipping of more than a few rural congressional seats, but it does add fuel to the hypothesis that Trump’s rural base may, indeed, be eroding. Between the 2012 and 2016 voting cycles, Democrats lost an average of 11 percentage points in rural areas; according to recently released data, they gained six of those points back in 2018.
Another recent analysis found that Democrats essentially have to win back more rural voters to win the White House in 2020. Thanks to years of Republican-friendly gerrymandering, there are simply not enough urban and suburban voters who reliably vote for Democratic candidates to swing the electoral map in their favor.
But is hammering Trump about soybean prices the winning message?
J.D. Scholten doesn’t think so — and his opinion is in high demand at the moment. The 39-year-old former minor-league baseball player with no political experience nearly unseated longtime Republican congressman Steve King from his reign over Iowa’s deep-red, deeply rural fourth district last fall. This improbable feat has propelled him into the role of Republican whisperer for the presidential hopefuls roaming Iowa’s backroads this summer. They are hoping he can help them figure out the secret sauce in an early voting state that’s as synonymous with corn and soybean fields as it is with making and breaking presidential candidates.
Shortly after his loss in the midterms, Scholten recalled a reporter from a major national news outlet contacting him to discuss “how the tariffs got me so close to beating King.” According to Scholten, “I told him that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Scholten says that’s in part because farmers, at least the die-hard Trump supporters among them, actually trust the President to negotiate with China in their best interests — they may experience short-term pain, but they believe it’s for long-term gain. Related to this rationale was that soy and other commodity prices are already dismally low — a reality that farmers have been dealing with since long before coastal journalists started showing up in droves to ask them whether they were going to abandon Trump because of the trade war. Soybeans traded for just $6 per bushel as recently as 2006, before ballooning to more than twice that amount a few years later. This puts the current $9-per-bushel price in a different light — commodity crops often sell for below the cost of production, with crop insurance and federal subsidies making up the difference to keep farmers afloat (some farmers, especially smaller ones, go bankrupt despite these safety nets, though).
“There’s this national narrative around farmers and tariffs,” says Scholten. “Obviously, my quote didn’t make it into the article.”
Swings in the market are something that farmers are used to; Democrats lavishing attention on them is not. And that’s where Scholten sees real opportunity. Farmers have a long list of gripes regarding agricultural policy, including topics on which both Republicans and Democrats deserve equal blame, such as the approval of corporate mergers that have given giant transnational corporations monopoly-like control over the market for seed, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs. Their voting choices are also influenced by everyday issues, such as healthcare costs and off-farm job opportunities for their children.
If Scholten’s campaign had a secret to success, it’s that he spent a lot of time listening to, learning from and dealing with voters on their terms rather than showing up with fancy-sounding solutions that reeked of coastal elitism. He toured the small communities in his district nonstop for months, sleeping in his Winnebago in Walmart parking lots. “I think if we send the right message and get out there and spend time with people, there’s a good possibility that Democrats will continue to earn votes,” he says.
The content of the message is important, but it’s also how you deliver it, says Matt Russell, an organic farmer and a longtime Democratic political operative in Iowa. Russell is currently the director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, a faith-based advocacy group that attempts to bridge the political divide on climate issues, in part by invoking conservatives’ sense of moral duty through faith-based messaging. He has found that Republican farmers are surprisingly open to talking about climate change if approached as part of the solution rather than as a culprit. The latter plays right into the hands of Republican politicians who are adept at stirring up resentment among farmers who feel that liberals persecute them for trying to make a living by growing food.
The unveiling of the Green New Deal earlier this year was a case in point. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vision is admirably ambitious and much needed, one Green New Deal document disseminated by her office stated that it was necessary to “get rid of farting cows” in the fight against climate change. It may be true that bovine greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from burping — a natural aspect of every ruminant’s digestive process that can be offset by carefully managed grazing practices. But farmers, fueled by right-wing radio, are easily agitated by urban foodies who don’t have the facts straight about agriculture and the environment. President Trump lashed out in predictable fashion, saying the Green New Deal is going to “permanently eliminate” cows, he tweeted. “They want to take away your hamburgers,” exclaimed Sebastian Gorka.
“Republicans leaned into the idea of rural America under attack, and the Democrats totally lost control of the narrative,” says Russell. As for the candidates, he says that some are showing signs of a more nuanced approach to campaigning in rural areas, but many are still defining rural communities and farmers as victims, particularly with trade issues, he says. “If you parachute in to solve problems I didn’t ask you to solve — and that you’re not going to be able to solve anyway because you’re clueless — that’s a kind of arrogance that doesn’t sell,” he says.
Democratic hopefuls are testing a range of messages and delivery styles as they campaign across Iowa this summer. Joe Biden has been hammering the trade issue. Bernie Sanders has called for a change in subsidy programs that would incentivize a return to smaller, family-owned farms. Elizabeth Warren has focused on breaking up agribusiness monopolies. Beto O’Rourke has pushed for farmers to get paid for practices that sequester carbon on their land — a topic that has particular salience among farmers because it frames them as contributing to a climate change solution rather than being part of the problem.
Of course, one of the biggest impediments to winning over rural conservative voters is hot-button cultural issues, such as gun rights and abortion. Scholten and Russell point out that Democrats don’t need to win over all rural voters — a subset of deeply conservative voters are unlikely to budge — but they are adamant that enough moderate conservatives can be persuaded to make a difference. After all, Obama won Iowa by 10 points in 2008 and six points in 2012, before Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 10 points in 2016.
Chad Ingels, a Republican farmer from Randalia, Iowa, says that if the Democrats have any hope of turning the tide, they have to stop vilifying Big Ag. “A lot of farmers feel that liberals demonize what we do on a daily basis, suggesting that we don’t know what we’re doing and don’t care about the environment,” he says. That approach is a nonstarter, he says. While acknowledging that agriculture continues to be a major contributor to environmental degradation, Ingels insists that so-called Big Ag is slowly moving in the right direction. The Democrats would be better served by policies that incentivize farmers to move forward along that path and rhetoric that recognizes their shared environmental values.
Ingels exemplifies the notion that most farmers are somewhere along a spectrum of so-so, good, better and best practices, even if they are not making the radical shifts desired by some environmentalists. He raises conventional corn and soybeans, but he also raises hogs for Niman Ranch, the California label known for demanding a high bar for sustainability and animal welfare from its producers. He is outspoken about both the impact of climate change on agriculture and the potential for farmers to do something about it.
Ingels, who ran for Iowa secretary of agriculture last year (unsuccessfully), says that the farmers he knows are definitely not prepared to abandon Trump over tariffs. Does he see an opening for the Democrats anyway? I ask. He demurs: “It’s going to be a brutal election.”