How Trump flipped this rural Iowa county by 42 points

Donald Trump promised residents from Howard County, Iowa, something Hillary Clinton could not: a break from the status quo.

CRESCO, Iowa — It wasn’t long after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination that Laura Hubka realized how little excitement there was for Clinton among Howard County residents. “I went out and started knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton, and making phone calls,” Hubka, who leads Howard County’s Democratic Party, said when I met with her in late June. “I got hung up on, some guy chased me out of his yard with a rake, the unions complained a lot. There was a lot of yelling at doors.”

Iowa and Howard County, with fewer than 10,000 people, had never been enamored with Clinton. Clinton came in third in the 2008 Democratic caucuses, Hubka reminded me, and won them only narrowly in 2016. In 2016, she lost the county by 8 percentage points to Bernie Sanders.

There was just something about Clinton even many Democrats here couldn’t abide. For Sandy Chilson of Lime Springs, a small town just three miles from the Minnesota border, that something became apparent during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Chilson voted for Clinton in 1992 but soon lost confidence in him. “I felt like I couldn’t trust him, and I have felt that way about Hillary ever since she started running,” she said. “I just don’t think she’s truthful.” Chilson supported Trump from the moment he got into the race.

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Others felt the Democratic Party has veered too far to the left under Clinton. “The reason I didn’t vote as a Democrat [in the caucuses], and I am a registered Democrat, was I felt like they’re no longer the party that they were 30 years ago,” said Joe Wacha, who talked to me while on break from working the Moo Mobile malt stand at the Mighty Howard County Fair. Today’s Republican Party, Wacha said, is “more like the way the Democratic Party was 30 or 40 years ago.”

Some Democrats’ distrust of Clinton was reinforced by the way they felt Team Clinton stole the Democratic nomination from Bernie Sanders. Todd Mensink, Chilson’s neighbor and a Sanders supporter, said he spoke to many diehard Democrats who, like himself, ended up voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. He said their experiences in the voting booth went something like this:

“They filled out the ballot with everybody else and went back up to president, and they sat there for quite a while, thinking about it. Everything in them says they should probably vote for Hillary because they’re worried about Trump. But if you vote for Hillary, then you’re condoning what the Democratic Party did and the undemocratic nature of that, not running a fair process.”

It didn’t help that Clinton failed to show up in a part of the country where showing up matters. Barack Obama had to campaign hard and in-person to win Iowa twice. Clinton campaigned in Iowa cities such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, while ignoring rural Iowa.

But Clinton aversion only partially explains how a county that voted for Obama by 21 points in 2012 then voted for Trump by 21 points four years later.

Unlike other counties that saw big swings from Obama to Trump, Howard has not been besieged by illegal immigrants or hard-hit by manufacturing job losses.

The county’s population is 99 percent white and its unemployment rate was under 3 percent on Election Day. The biggest economic challenge here isn’t unemployment but rather convincing people to move here to fill the available jobs.

What caused Howard County to transform from deep-blue to deep-red was a general discontent with the political establishment and the belief that only Trump represented a true break from the status quo. Jason Passmore, who heads Howard County’s business and tourism office, said that as an outsider Trump “was going to shake things up, wasn’t going to do things the way they’ve always been done. People like that. That sold well here.”

Trump also beat Clinton by showing up. He held campaign rallies in Davenport, Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City. When my brother and I visited in June, President Trump had just delivered a speech in Cedar Rapids, south of Cresco.  

Some people here still hadn’t come down from the high after attending it. Rachel Gooder described being at the rally as “one of the highlights of my life. Watching how people reacted to what he was saying. It gave me shivers, it was just really, really cool.”

“My hands hurt (from clapping),” her husband, Mike, said. “Trump won by speaking to the working-class guy. He’s still doing that.”

Hubka participated in several post-election listening sessions with voters across the state and found that people felt Trump offered a more positive and policy-driven vision than Clinton. “The Democrats’ message was, ‘I’m not Trump. I’m not a Republican. They’re going to kill you,’” Hubka said participants told her. “Trump’s was, ‘I’m going to bring jobs back, I’m going to get rid of regulations, and I’m going to take away that horrible Obamacare.’”

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Many unionized workers from top Howard County employers, such as Donaldson Company, which makes air filtration products, not only didn’t knock on doors for Clinton but also didn’t vote for her, Hubka said. “I couldn’t get them out to knock doors, I couldn’t get them. They found that populist message in Trump that they’re looking for and everyone’s looking for, especially in a place like this.”

Perhaps the best explanation for Trump’s victory here was offered by Courtney Rowe, an aerospace engineer and Bernie Sanders supporter whom I met at the Democratic Party booth at the fair.

“I think part of [Trump’s success in Howard County] was just people thought, things aren’t working, we’ve tried Republicans, we’ve tried Democrats, it hasn’t worked for us,” said Rowe, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Congress. “Telling people that he’s going to make America great again, when it hasn’t seemed very great for you, that’s hopeful.”

Next: It’s still all about God and guns in the rural Midwest

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