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Forget the Rust Belt – What about the Corn Belt?

The farm vote could have been the difference between a President Trump and a President Clinton. Democrats continue to overlook how winnable these votes are, while Republicans exert little effort to secure them. Jana Linderman, President of the Iowa Farmers Union, is still waiting for a presidential hopeful to earn her vote. As a young, fourth generation female farmer committed to sustainable practices, she challenges stereotypes about rural America. Her law degree is from Georgetown, her soybean crop is non-GMO, and her political affiliations are not a foregone conclusion. More than 90% of Iowa’s land is cultivated, yet Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton downplayed agriculture when they visited this swing state. “There doesn’t seem to be a high level of interest in agricultural issues,” Linderman says. “No one is actively listening to rural people.”

Both Republicans and Democrats ignore farm voters, a bloc that encompasses farmers, ranchers, laborers, input and machinery salespeople, processors, and other rural citizens. Republicans like Donald Trump assume these votes are red. He didn’t even mention agriculture in his platform. Democrats create tepid strategies like Hillary Clinton’s “Plan for Rural America” that are clearly not a priority for the campaign. The result is a vacuum of attention and a self-fulfilling prophecy that hurts Democrats in swing states. Most Democrats question whether the farm vote is winnable. The short answer is – of course it is. Like most people, farm voters can be swung if Democrats speak and legislate to their interests.

{mosads}The farm vote is significant in size and location. 2.6 million Americans are directly employed on farms and ranches. The sector supports another 3 million jobs indirectly. Beyond this, 61 million people live in rural areas and may identify with farm issues. Farm voters play an important role in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that flipped for Trump. These Rust Belt states are agricultural states, too. Clinton lost by 11,837 votes in Michigan, a state with 51,600 farms and 1.8 million rural citizens. She lost by 27,257 votes in Wisconsin, a state with 76,800 farms and 1.5 million rural citizens. You can tell a similar story in Pennsylvania and Iowa. Flipping even a small portion of these voters could have changed the outcome.   

The farm vote is persuadable. According to an Agri-Pulse poll of farmers and ranchers in the 2016 election, 69% of farmers lean Republican, 12% are independent, and 19% lean Democrat, but these numbers do not capture the complexity of the situation. Take ethanol. The EPA’s renewable fuel standard (RFS) is a federal mandate to mix ethanol into gasoline to reduce carbon emissions. Luckily for Iowa farmers, ethanol is made from corn. This is a Democratic policy that most Republicans condemn. But drive around Iowa and you will see bumper stickers proclaiming “Don’t mess with the RFS.” Farmers can and do fight to protect Democratic policies.

And ethanol isn’t the only rural-friendly Democratic policy. Farm voters would benefit from subsidies for healthy foods, small farms, and organic farms; more extension support; training on climate change resiliency; water management programs; infrastructure investments; and programs to allow legal visiting labor. These policies sit squarely within the liberal wheelhouse, yet overwhelmingly benefit rural America. “Water, soil, and climate are how I make a living,” says Linderman. “These are not hippy dippy issues.”

Swinging the farm vote will take real listening, work, and investment. Farmers are not a monolith. Older farmers with land and assets have different business interests than new and small farmers. Large landowners benefit more from federal subsidies and insurance. Republicans win farm votes by protecting these policies in the Farm Bill. However, 78% of American farms are smaller than 200 acres. Democrats can win a majority of rural citizens by investing in programs that achieve more equitable rural revitalization.

Looking to 2020, Democrats have an opportunity to fill the political void in farm country with an ambitious strategy that aligns with the Party’s core values. “This strategy must go beyond agriculture and encompass rural economic development and quality of life – hospitals, education, and daycare,” says Linderman. “How can we make these communities vibrant again?” Listening is the first step. If Democrats can craft and champion smart rural policies that meet real needs over the next four years, they will be in a stronger position to win swing states and push into red states. They lost the Rust Belt this election – but they conceded the Corn Belt decades ago.  It’s time to show farmers that the Democratic Party can work for them.   

Jess Newman ( is a degree candidate in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She has worked on agricultural sustainability in the public and private sectors.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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