Dan Smicker heads the Republican party in Clinton County, Iowa. He says three years ago lots of new faces came through the door of his office in downtown Clinton in the months before the 2016 election.
“They wanted two things,” he says. “They wanted a Trump yard sign and they wanted to know how to change their party affiliation.”
Nine out of 10 Iowa counties along the state's eastern border flipped from blue to red in 2016. Statewide, Iowa has more counties than any other state that flipped from Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016. Those counties helped Trump win Iowa, and maintaining them will be key to his reelection bid next year.
Smicker is confident Trump will carry Clinton County again in 2020.
“I think he will. As far as the party goes, nobody is apologizing for supporting the president,” Smicker says. “Does he do everything that everyone would do? Nobody does. But the leadership he’s provided and remembering his campaign promises is amazing.”
But not everyone in eastern Iowa who voted for Trump is happy with what he’s done while in office. Faye Roling is a farmer and a nursing assistant in rural Jackson County, Iowa, which also went for Trump in 2016.
Roling says she voted for Trump because of his promises to help farmers like her. Now, she regrets that vote.
“I don’t see what he’s done at all but did damage to the farmers with China,” she says. “I don’t like him. He just is a poor president.”
Roling recently changed her party affiliation so she can caucus with the Democrats next year. She’s hasn't made up her mind yet about which candidate to support.
The key question for Republicans is whether Roling is an anomaly or a sign that the president’s support might be fading in parts of the Midwest.
Andy McKean thinks it’s a trend. He served seven terms as a Republican representing rural constituents in Jackson, Jones and Dubuque Counties in the Iowa House of Representatives. This year, mid-way through his eighth term in the House, he switched his party affiliation to Democratic.
“The Republican party I feel has become somewhat extreme in some of their priorities,” he says. “Not to say that the Democratic party doesn’t have its problems, too, but I felt more comfortable as a moderate Democrat and made the switch.”
McKean says Trump’s spending is “reckless,” his foreign policy “erratic,” and he’s not confident in the economy Trump touts on the campaign trail.
“I think it’s a house of cards ready to fall. Sure the stock market is up for the moment, but you just wait and see what happens to it eventually,” he says.
McKean sees an opening for moderate Democrats in Iowa in 2020.
“I do believe that a more middle-of-the-road Democrat would be a very, very strong competitor for Trump, and I think would get a lot of not only Democrats but a lot of independents and a lot of disillusioned Republicans,” he says.
But many Republicans in eastern Iowa disagree. Michael Cassaday, a 68-year-old retired doctor in Clinton County, voted for Trump in 2016 and is eager to vote for him again.
“I genuinely think that he is out to make things better for our country,” Cassaday says. “With the treaties he’s trying to get reorganized, with the reduction of regulations, I think he’s sent a message to lots of different countries that we’re going to take care of ourselves first, and then if you don’t like it, if you’re messing with us, we’re going to take care of you.”
Pauline Chilton, a 41-year-old real estate broker in Dubuque, changed her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican to vote for Trump in 2016. Chilton identifies as half-black, half-Asian, and she says Trump’s support is more diverse than many people think.
“It may look like he has support from mostly white people, but not everybody’s loud about who they’re supporting, especially when there is some backlash,” Chilton says. “Most Republicans support Trump. The ones who don’t support him I think is a very small percentage and I believe that there has been a growing number of people who support him because they’re happy with the job that he’s doing.”
As for the impeachment inquiry House Democrats are pursuing, Chilton calls it a “political stunt.”
According to a poll released Monday by the Public Religion Research Institute, 94% of Republicans agree with Chilton that Trump should not be impeached and removed from office. Another poll published last week by Quinnipiac University shows a majority of voters nationwide support the House's impeachment inquiry.
That could be a problem for Republicans in states like Iowa, where the party needs to win over independents — not just turn out the president’s base.
Alexis Lundgren is chair of the Dubuque County Republican Party. She says in eastern Iowa the impeachment inquiry will likely boost Republican turnout for Trump.
“I think right now what’s going on is pushing the Republicans closer to Trump,” Lundgren says. “When I have conversations with people they’re irritated just like I am. They want this over with and done, and we want to work on something else that will benefit everyone. I don’t think it’s doing anything bad for us. I think it’s doing bad for the Democrats.”
Turnout in Iowa was down in 2016 compared to 2008 and 2012 for both parties, but especially for Democrats. Trump also won a larger share of independents than Hillary Clinton, and those no-party voters were key to his victory.
Tom Barton, a 53-year-old independent from Dubuque, says he's undecided right now. He voted in 2016, but won't say for whom because he says he doesn't want to alienate friends and clients of his business. Barton owns a wealth management firm and says his number one issue is the economy.
“As a financial guy it’s frustrating as hell when you're one tweet away from your whole apple cart being upset here, and so that’s worn on me the last three years,” Barton says. “I guess I’m for the party that’s going to help people do the best economically and right now I don’t know who that is.”
Winning over no-party voters like Barton is just as important to Trump's chances as energizing his base. Republicans will find out next year if Trump can shore up that coalition against a flagging approval rating and an impeachment inquiry with growing support.
This segment aired on October 22, 2019.
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