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  • Writer's pictureReid Stevens

Try That In A Small Town: The Role Iowa’s Small Towns Play in Presidential Politics

I grew up in the town of Isanti, Minnesota. It’s a small town, doesn’t even have its high school, but has always had a McDonalds, a couple of gas stations, a credit union, a post office, K-8 schools, a large complex of soccer fields (Not sure why, they were not used often) and a few more businesses. For the longest time, the signs on Minnesota Highway 65 on the way into town read “ISANTI. Pop. 5,251.” The one thing that Isanti has not had is a presidential candidate roll into town. Candidates for the U.S. House Seat from my district, Minnesota District 8 (Fun fact: Minnesota District 8 has been the last congressional seat allotted in back-to-back censuses in 2020 and 2010) rarely came to Isanti either. 

On the other side of the magic line that divides Minnesota from its neighbor to the south, Iowa, lies the town of Vinton. Statistically speaking, it is nearly identical to Isanti. In Vinton, however, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Ryan Binkley, and Perry Johnson visited the town during the latter half of 2023. Their visits are due to Iowa’s strategic importance with its first-in-the-nation caucuses (at least for one party at this point–I went through the current situation with the democratic party in a separate blog–click for that.) But even in politically essential states, such as California and Texas, due to their high electoral votes, their small towns do not get visits from many candidates. So what makes Iowan small towns so important? Here are my observations from the trial. 


  1. Voters: It’s Where They Are

This one is especially true for Republicans, who tend to dominate in more rural areas. But in Iowa, which has voted Democrat in presidential elections as recently as Barack Obama in both of his election victories, rural voters matter to Democrats too, during the caucuses and beyond. In 2012, with the tighter margin of victory for President Obama in Iowa, many rural counties, mostly in eastern Iowa, voted for Obama—Benton County, where Vinton went to Mitt Romney, but only by 85 votes. The races are very tight; therefore, when candidates focus on one particular state instead of the entire United States, they need every vote they can get. President Obama visited Vinton in October 2007 en route to getting America’s top job. The reality, especially during caucus season, is that Iowa is just too rural, with its percentage of the rural population nearly double that of the entire United States, to have

success just through the urban vote. 


  1. Laboratories of Democracy

Coined by Justice Louis D. Brandeis in 1932, Laboratories of Democracy refers to the idea that federalism in the United States allows individual states to experiment with policy with little risk to the rest of the country. While academics disagree about the realities of the theory, the concept applies to presidential campaigns, too. Candidates from across the political spectrum and the country come to Iowa to see what excites their base and draws in undecided voters. They will get plenty of practice answering questions from voters, as I have yet to attend an event in Iowa where the crowd did not lunge at the opportunity to ask questions in both question and answer sessions and individual conversations when it was allowed. The candidates also have the chance to quickly iron out any routine mistakes without the risk of too much ridicule in the media. This rule is less true with how much social media is used in politics, as blunders can go viral quickly. Still, especially early in the season, most of the rest of the country needs to pay more attention to Iowa. It also gives them plenty of time and resources to appeal to rural voters. Establishments around the state, from college basketball arenas to farms, are used to host political candidates, allowing them to be creative with venues. Candidates can take pictures of them holding a baby calf or speaking to college students in a university auditorium. The possibilities are endless for them to develop their political identity and effective ways of getting their message across. 


  1. Taste the Rainbow

As many people quickly point out, Iowa is not a very diverse state. However, historically, Iowa has been one of the most elastic states in presidential elections, meaning the number of registered voters for each party was nearly identical and was believed to have a large group of unaffiliated voters that could turn the tide of the entire election. However, this was only sometimes the case, and some believe Iowa is currently departing from it. Iowa’s standing as a political median began to take shape in the 1980s after the farming crisis reduced the number of agricultural workers by over 30,000 from 1982 to 1997. A solid Republican state had become a toss-up in nearly every election, with the Iowa caucuses still relatively new at the time, bringing a more interesting political landscape. I have run into people at events that bounce around the political spectrum because they find someone new that they like in each campaign. For example, I met a woman at a Vivek Ramaswamy event who had been a die-hard supporter of him since the summer of 2023 yet was an Andrew Yang supporter in the previous caucus cycle. When I learned this, my political science student brain had no concepts, trends, or theories to describe it. It bothered me for a while; why did this woman shift so drastically in such a short period? The only way I could understand it was to shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I guess that’s Iowa for you!” The unfortunate reality, however, is that many are worried that Iowa’s standing as a wild card is going away, as former President Trump seems to have secured Iowa’s vote in any caucus or election soon. Many Iowans, including myself, believe the Democratic Party has divested in the past few years. However, politics happens in waves, some favoring one party and vice versa. Iowa’s small towns are not going anywhere and still play a significant role in the Republican caucuses, which were always going to be more eventful this time following their loss in the 2020 election. The goal of many politically active Iowans and the Iowa Caucus Project as an organization is to keep the traditions of the caucuses alive so that for a few hectic days every four years, the world will continue to put Iowa first.


Sources: 

Berkes, Howard. “Rural America to Obama: Remember Us.” NPR, NPR, 22 Nov. 2008, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97307012.

Burke, Sandra  Charvat. “Census 2020: Urban and Rural Population in Iowa’s Counties, 1940 - 2020.” Indicators Program, Iowa State University, 31 July 2023, indicators.extension.iastate.edu/Indicators/Census/.

Greeve, Michael S. “Laboratories of Democracy .” American Enterprise Institute, 31 Mar. 2001, www.aei.org/research-products/report/laboratories-of-democracy/.

Iowa Presidential Candidate Tracker: 2024 Election, Des Moines Register, 12 Jan. 2024, www.desmoinesregister.com/storytelling/iowa-candidate-tracker/.

“Iowa.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2012, www.nytimes.com/elections/2012/results/states/iowa.html.

“Vinton, Iowa Population.” World Population Review, 2024, worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/vinton-ia-population.

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