For 2020 presidential candidates, Midwest is the proving ground
Charles City, Iowa – Matt Hoeft described his dismay with politics and politicians on a recent Friday night at his daughter Ashlyn's high-school basketball game here.
"I'm pretty well disgusted. Both sides are worried about their own [party's] wants and not what needs, truthfully, to be done," he said. "They're all acting like kids right now."
Iowa Floyd county
The Midwest remakes American politics
"All the politicians, honestly, they all need to go," said Hoeft, 43, a farmer who sat with his wife, Tina, watching Ashlyn, a guard, try to help the varsity team break a winless streak. Her Comets lost to the Oelwein Huskies, 35-31.
Hoeft's irritation is echoed by many of his Floyd County neighbors. Their opinions count: They will have an outsized voice in a political season that is already percolating.
Iowans have the first say in the next presidential race in their Feb. 3, 2020, caucuses. White House hopefuls are already swarming the state to court them. Floyd County, which voted for Donald Trump after backing a string of Democrats, is an up-for-grabs fulcrum that in 2016 contributed to Iowa's about-face from blue to red.
And Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan were decisive factors in Trump's victory. Without them and Pennsylvania, he would not be president. He has said that carrying Minnesota in 2020 will be "easy" after his narrow 2016 defeat in the state.
The four Midwest states have 42 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to secure the presidency. Pennsylvania has 20 electors. Working-class and rural voters in those states could be 2020's presidential power brokers.
The 2016 election revealed weakness in what was once a reliable "blue wall" for Democrats. In Iowa, 31 counties that had voted twice for Barack Obama moved to Trump's column. Nineteen Minnesota counties shifted.
A strong showing in last year's midterms buoyed Democrats' hopes that they can recapture them.
Minnesota's two Democratic U.S. senators were re-elected, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — now a presidential candidate — won 42 counties that backed Trump in 2016. Scott Walker, Wisconsin's Republican governor, lost. A Democrat beat Michigan's Republican attorney general, and Pennsylvania's incumbent governor and U.S. senator, both Democrats, won by double digits.
Political fervor can be muted here, but Mark Barry, who owns Charles City's Comet Bowl with his sister Peggy Sweet, has seen it flare.
Now and then, he said, a conversation will end abruptly with an empty glass plunked emphatically on the bar and a departing "see you guys later."
elections in Iowa
Click a year to see how the state voted in the last five presidential elections, county by county.
|Gore||✔ 48.5%||✔ 52.9%|
|Obama||✔ 53.9%||✔ 60%|
|Obama||✔ 51.9%||✔ 57%|
|Trump||✔ 51.1%||✔ 54.7%|
The demographic and economic view from Floyd County, Iowa
|Number of companies||1,189|
|High school or higher||89.9%|
|Median household income||$48,607|
|Below poverty level||15.6%|
|Unemployment (Dec. 2018)||2.6%|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Labor Department, Iowa Secretary of State
Barry, 55, whose family has run the bowling alley since 1972, leavens his own politics with "common sense and a sense of humor" and doesn't referee partisan spats. But he hears growing frustration from customers.
"They're really digging in," he said. "It's got to be black and white. Some people just act like there's no middle ground."
Barry doesn't think people are fired up about the nascent presidential campaign. "They just don't think politicians are going to do anything," he said.
Toby Crawford, 47, operations manager at DFS/USA, which manufactures fastening systems, chimed in from the bar. "Everybody in this town was kind of raised on you believe nothing of what you hear and about half of what you see," he explained.
Back at the lanes, Charles City's boys and girls varsity bowling teams were beating the Forest City Indians as a big crowd cheered them on.
Crawford isn't looking forward to the next campaign. "We can't have a civilized conversation anymore," he said. "It's right is right and wrong is wrong no matter what side you're on."
He wants a president who is a sort of "father figure," he said — someone who provides calm reassurance.
Even some Republicans here said that Trump's rancorous tweets sometimes make them wince, and he has made civil discussions about politics scarcer. Democrats called his immigration policies and plans for a wall at the Mexico border aggravating.
Economic change helped shape Floyd County's politics. The earliest known internal combustion tractor was produced in Charles City in the early 1900s. Tractors were manufactured here by a succession of companies. In the mid-1970s, a giant plant employed almost 3,000 workers. Union jobs led to a stable economy.
"We were a miniature Detroit: very blue-collar, very pro-union," said Dean Tjaden, 66, who once worked for the company and serves on the county zoning commission.
The 1980s farm crisis led to the plant's closure in 1993. After its demise, "it was pretty gloomy around here for awhile," Tjaden said.
The clout of unions, whose members are often Democrats, declined as smaller manufacturers moved in. Floyd County's jobless rate in December was 2.6 percent, lower than the current 4-percent national rate. People say the pinch from trade embargoes on products like pork and soybeans is just beginning to be felt.
Charles City, the county seat, is a busy place with few vacant downtown storefronts and neighborhoods with well-tended homes. The Charles Theatre on Main Street, built in 1935, is open and has a glittering marquee. Other towns in the county are less prosperous; the main drag in little Rockford is mostly abandoned.
The county, established in 1854, is named for Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who died during the journey.
Democrats Susan Nelson, her husband, J.R. Ackley, and Stewart Dalton chatted on a Saturday morning at Aromas, a coffee shop in Charles City.
Nelson, 66, who chairs the county zoning commission, once supported Joe Biden, backed independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016 and hopes for a progressive nominee to shake up the party.
"The party as an institution is fighting tooth and nail not to change anything, but to sound good," she said, while voters like her yearn for a new message. Democrats, she said, need a candidate who can express policy goals in simple sentences.
Her suggestion: "Health care is a right." Her husband, 68, who runs an insurance agency and is on the City Council in Marble Rock, recommended "I'll never lie to you."
"I read the Constitution and I will follow it," said Dalton, 65, a retired chef who works in social services. He lost a race for county supervisor last fall and backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. He's a Biden guy now.
He blames complacency and neglect of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania for Clinton's loss. "They thought, 'oh, we've got this,' " he said.
All three want their party to embrace new ideas and be more aggressive about promoting them. It's imperative that the nominee work quickly to unite Democrats, they said.
Pam Durrwachter, 64, is secretary of the county Democratic Party. People she knows "seem disturbed about the way things are going," she said.
After breaking her neck last fall in a car wreck, she wishes everyone would pay more attention to health care. She thinks change is coming in 2020 because people sense that "something is going on in Washington that stinks to high heaven."
Linda Tjaden and her husband, Dean, are Republicans, though her county supervisor job is nonpartisan.
They are Trump fans who were shocked when he won — a victory Linda, 62, attributed to "a lot of frustration we were having with Obama."
Now they wonder whether the pendulum is about to swing back. She expects Trump to face a primary challenge, she said in the living room of their farm house — the same house where Dean grew up.
He said he often hears from friends that "we ought to get term limits and can them all." People complain that politicians are "so disconnected, especially in Washington."
Still, they both think that the "silent majority" of Trump voters who stunned the political world before could do it again.
Charles Thomson, chairman of the county Republican Party, believes that cynicism is having a corrosive effect on politics. He foresees "heightened animosity between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives" as campaign season intensifies.
"Airing differences is great, but shouting at each other across the room [at caucuses] is not healthy."
No one knows how the agitated political currents in Iowa and Floyd County will shape the 2020 race.
That will depend on people like Larry Hicok, 78, a retired school principal who spent a Sunday morning building bird feeders at the Fossil and Prairie Center near Rockford.
He's a registered independent and defined the current mood this way: "People have asked for change and gotten it, and then they weren't sure that's what they wanted."
Last month Iowa had 732,891 registered independents, topping the GOP and Democratic Party numbers, and 38,886 more than in November 2016.
Where does that leave things heading into 2020? "I don't care what candidates carry as a brand name as long as they do what they say they're going to do," Hicok said.
Steven Zimmer, 24, shared his views over sausage gravy and biscuits at the 218 Fuel Express truck stop in Floyd. He tuned in to politics when Obama was running and worked on Sanders' Iowa campaign in 2016.
"I believe that if you live in a place, it's your obligation to do what you can to make it the best place that you can," said Zimmer, who lives with his parents near Floyd and is working at a factory while planning a return to college.
Some of his friends feel the same way, he said, but "those that don't vote are not going to turn out this time around, which is a sad thing."
Cheryl Lair and Carol Poquette sat across from each other for bingo at the Senior Center in Charles City, where the "Senior" half of the building's sign was removed to make sure everyone feels welcome.
As they lined up colorful daubers and taped their piles of bingo cards together, they said they're not sure the ugliness will abate anytime soon.
Poquette, 69, described her political affiliation as "kind of both." She wondered whether things will improve for her grandchildren, then answered her own question: "Maybe. Maybe not."
Lair, 70, said she's "not necessarily for either party." She's appalled by Trump's immigration crackdown and worries that sour relations with China will hurt the economy. She wants a president "who actually cares about what happens to the middle-class and lower-class people."
She respects House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican. Poquette agrees with her on Ernst.
Asked separately to name the last president they admired, the friends had identical replies: John F. Kennedy.