DECORAH, IOWA – If Republican Donald Trump pulls off a win in Iowa this year, it’s because this presidential swing state still has plenty of voters like Daryl Hovden — old, male, white and angry.
“Trump isn’t my ideal choice, but he’s a lot better than that other [expletive]. Excuse my French,” said Hovden, a 60-year-old crop and cattle farmer and property owner. “I know there’s going to be a woman president and I have nothing against it. But not that woman, is my opinion.”
Minnesota’s neighbor to the south gave President Obama its six electoral votes in 2008 and 2012. But this year, it’s been flagged as the U.S. state most likely to flip back from Democratic to Republican in the presidential vote. Experts say the state’s aging population, lack of diversity and rural character is making it politically more akin to conservative prairie states like Nebraska and the Dakotas over more populous neighbors like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois that consistently back Democrats in presidential years.
“Iowa is mostly white, only about 25 percent of its residents have college degrees, and it’s one of the oldest states in the country,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, and a former political journalist in Iowa. “I’ve just described to you the profile of the typical Trump voter.”
Trump led Democrat Hillary Clinton by 4 points in the last statewide poll of Iowa, by the Des Moines Register earlier in October. It was taken right before the second presidential debate and the new flood of allegations about Trump’s behavior toward women, after which Clinton expanded her lead in national and other swing-state polls.
Obama won Iowa in 2008 and 2012, but Republicans have gained major ground in state and congressional elections here in recent cycles, and former President George W. Bush won the state in 2004. Clinton and Trump both campaigned in Iowa at the end of September, and both their running mates also made recent visits.
Hovden, a longtime Republican voter, admitted to pessimism about Trump’s chances in November. Sitting in the cab of his dusty Chevy Silverado, Hovden called Clinton a “crook” and argued that former President Bill Clinton’s alleged transgressions with women are likely as bad as anything Trump said or did.
“The media is against Trump and they spin these stories,” Hovden said. “I’m sure he is a bigot with women and probably tried to make sexual advances. But she’s not a saint, either.”
At the end of his interview, Hovden seemed to regret his initial coarse language about Clinton.
“Take out my cuss words if you reprint me,” he said. He was wearing a University of Minnesota T-shirt — "My Iowa shirt is dirty,” he explained.
Nearby is tiny Burr Oak, site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum. Barb Olson, the museum’s director, already cast her ballot — in Iowa, early voting commenced Sept. 29.
“It was an easy call,” said Olson, a 67-year-old retired teacher wearing an American flag T-shirt. “They both have things I’m concerned about. But I cannot vote for a person like Trump. I think he’s a very poor role model.”
Decorah is the largest town in this northeastern corner of Iowa, home of Luther College.
“It’s a liberal town, but I drove to Iowa City the other day and I was a little disturbed by all the Trump signs I saw as soon as I got out into the country,” said Emily Mineart, 28, who works at Luther’s library. Mineart was a Bernie Sanders supporter but has made her peace with Clinton.
Noah Madryga, an 18-year-old first-year student, said he’s only met three or four Trump supporters on campus.
Like every Clinton supporter in Iowa interviewed for this story, Madryga expressed some doubt about her honesty: “the e-mail scandal and all of that,” he said. But he finds Trump unacceptable and is awakening to the historic nature of Clinton’s bid.
“It’s either the first female president, or with Trump you get possibly the worst president ever,” Madryga said.
Down Hwy. 52 is Postville, home to the kosher meat-processing plant Agri Star, the target of a massive immigration raid in 2008. Along the main drag is the Juba Grocery and Halal Market, where a handful of Somali-American men standing out front were unanimously behind Clinton.
“She likes to help us immigrants,” said Abdi Ahmad, a plant worker. “She wants to support us.”
The men were more reluctant to talk about Trump. Faid Hussein Warsame, another plant worker, criticized Trump’s repeated vows to toughen immigration laws.
“He can’t take all the people in the U.S. out of here,” Warsame said. “He doesn’t know what to do or what to say. He don’t even remember what he said yesterday.”
Here in northeast Iowa, a Republican unseated the Democratic congressional incumbent in 2014, the same year Republican Joni Ernst captured the U.S. Senate seat long held by Democrat Tom Harkin.
Five of the state’s six statewide elected officials are now Republicans, as are three of its four members of Congress.
Drive west from Postville and soon you hit the political turf of longtime U.S. Rep. Steve King, one of the most conservative and controversial members of Congress, a former Ted Cruz supporter now allied with Trump.
“I know Trump is not the greatest man,” said Vernon Oakland, a 74-year-old retiree who lives along Hwy. 18 in Clermont. “He lies, too. But why I am a Republican is every time a Democrat gets in, it seems like our rights get taken away. They want to pass a lot of new regulations and restrictions.”
Oakland relates to Trump’s recent struggles. “He doesn’t always say the right thing. Sometimes I stumble around with my words, too,” he said.
In early January, at the start of this wild presidential year, Trump traveled to Clear Lake in north-central Iowa, where he rallied supporters at the Surf Ballroom ahead of the state’s curtain-raising presidential caucus. Trump finished second to Cruz but has since consolidated and held the support of the state’s Republican establishment — support that eluded him in numerous other swing states.
Long-serving Gov. Terry Branstad, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Ernst have stood behind Trump in the recent fusillade of allegations and controversies.
“It’s just guy talk. I don’t think that should disqualify him,” said Derick Trappe, atop a dirt bike on the shore of Clear Lake. Trappe, 19, and his buddy Dallas Lee, 20, were out for an afternoon ride.
Asked if they were Trump supporters, Trappe laughed and lifted his sweatshirt to reveal a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt.
Trappe and Lee said they prefer Republican economic principles and like Trump’s blunt talk and nonpolitical background.
But that appeal is lost on Bob and Jill Branstad, both 48, setting out a picnic spread nearby.
“Everything that comes out of his mouth — I just think he’s incapable of running the country,” said Jill Branstad, a preschool teacher.
Asked about his last name, Bob, a mechanical engineer, explained that he and Gov. Branstad share a great-grandfather.
“I won’t be voting for him again,” Bob said of his relative, disgusted by the governor’s continued support for Trump. “Grassley, either.”
Jill Branstad said she’ll vote for either Clinton or Libertarian Gary Johnson.
Bob Branstad is voting for Johnson unless he decides Trump has a chance to win, in which case he might strategically vote for Clinton.
“I could be swayed if I thought the vote was that close, but right now, I don’t,” Bob Branstad said.