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Democrats Court Iowa's Rural Voters


Many Democrats who want to be president of the United States are already making trips to Iowa, which goes first with its caucuses. Some are trying hard to win over rural supporters who were often ignored in 2016. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports that includes occasionally getting off Iowa's freeways and driving into small towns.


CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Ten farmers and small-business owners greet Senator Sherrod Brown in the small town of Perry, Iowa. The Ohio Democrat is getting their perspective as he mulls whether or not to run for president. He asks them about the price of land these days.


SHERROD BROWN: With commodity prices down, has that dollar figure dropped, or no?


MASTERS: In his first trip to Iowa, Brown mostly made stops in counties that voted for President Trump in 2016. During this roundtable, he heard their concerns about the president's tariffs, about rural hospitals losing services. And he says Democrats need to pay more attention to rural America.


BROWN: Republicans have taken for granted rural voters. I mean, the White House looks like a retreat for Wall Street executives who care nothing about rural Iowa or small-town Iowa or...

MASTERS: Farmer Warren Varley was happy to have the senator visiting. He hopes other candidates stop by.

WARREN VARLEY: Really, if we're concerned about rural Iowa and rural America, I think we need to be concerned about the deeper economic issue, which is the concentration of economic power.

MASTERS: And many Democrats in rural Iowa seem eager to meet the candidates. When Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren made her first trip to Iowa in January, her third stop was Storm Lake, a town of less than 11,000 people. The line was around the block, and many couldn't get in.

BARBARA STROUD: I'm actually surprised that Elizabeth Warren found Storm Lake on the map.

MASTERS: That's Barbara Stroud. She was one of the people waiting outside. Sally Dobson. was also there. She's an independent voter but is considering registering as a Democrat and caucusing next year.

SALLY DOBSON: I'm leaning so strongly Democrat that I'm ready to topple over, so I'm considering doing that.

MASTERS: Many of those in line weren't talking about the price of corn and beans. The issues important to them were making health care more affordable and combating climate change. Those who got inside heard from Mark Prosser, Storm Lake's public safety director. Sitting next to the senator, he talked about the city's growing immigrant population.


MARK PROSSER: Getting folks appropriately into the system, where they don't have to worry about their immigration status - I'm not condoning how people came here, but they are here, and we need to care for them.

MASTERS: Warren accused Republicans of using immigration to divide Americans.


ELIZABETH WARREN: There are too many people who get their power from turning working people against working people. And that's what's going on here.

MASTERS: Paying attention to small-town voters was part of Barack Obama's successful strategy ahead of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, says Bob Leonard. He's a local journalist who focuses on rural Iowa.

BOB LEONARD: He waded right into crowds, shook hands, you know, kissed babies, did the right thing. He also reached out directly to local media.

MASTERS: Leonard interviewed Obama twice and says Hillary Clinton, who barely won the caucuses in 2016, rarely came to rural Iowa. In the 2008 general election, Obama went on to win 53 of Iowa's 99 counties. Since then, Republicans have steadily gained ground. Hillary Clinton only won six of Iowa's counties. Now, the question is whether all of these candidate visits are a sign that Democrats could gain back some of that support they've lost.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAGO.SEPIA'S "SEPT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.