The Current

Trump won swing state Iowa decisively in 2016. Here's how these voters feel 4 years later

Our Road to November series on the U.S. election reaches Iowa. Historically a swing state, U.S. President Donald Trump won there by a wide margin in 2016, but polls say it's tighter this time.

Polls suggest tight race in Iowa

In 2016, many people 'voted for Donald Trump on a hope and a prayer,' says Dan Smicker, a sheep farmer, and chairman of the Clinton County Republicans. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.


A Republican official in Iowa says his campaign office is seeing even more support for Donald Trump than in 2016, and he's sure the Republican nominee can win the state again.

"He has solidified his base in the centre part of this country because he's actually doing what he said he would do," said Dan Smicker, a lifelong Republican, and chairman of the Clinton County Republicans.

"We're supposed to be a Democratic county, and Trump won this county by 1,200 votes [in 2016]," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"Unless something drastic, unforeseen changes, I think he's going to win this county by more." 

Donald Trump and Joe Biden each made the case for why they should be elected U.S. president at their parties’ conventions, while taking aim at one another. 10:22

Trump won Iowa by a wide margin in 2016, taking 51.1 per cent of votes compared to Hillary Clinton's 41.7 per cent.

The definitive result was a surprise — a recent CBC analysis called Iowa "one of the swingiest states in the U.S., with candidates ekeing out razor-thin wins" — and raised questions of whether Iowa's aging and predominantly white population was creating a conservative stronghold. The state has been a barometer for the last three presidential elections, with Iowa's decision matching the overall result.

Smicker spoke to The Current as part of the Road to November series on the U.S. election, which has already featured voters from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

He said Iowans were drawn to Trump in 2016 because he is "not a trained politician."

"A lot of people in the centre part of the country do not really believe or trust a lot of the politicians from the coast because we've heard all kinds of promises and things said and we see very little, if any, results," he said.

"We kind of voted for Donald Trump on a hope and a prayer … nobody ever dreamed he would come up with a novel idea of actually doing what he promised."

Smicker formerly taught high school agriculture, and now runs a sheep farm in Dewitt, Iowa. He said Trump is an entrepreneur who understands the concerns of Iowa's large agriculture sector, and is fighting for U.S. farmers to have fair access to foreign markets. 

Republicans were showing up at Democrat events ahead of the Iowa caucuses to demonstrate their strength in the so-called purple state. 3:54

That fight has resulted in Trump's trade war with China, and tariffs and purchasing halts on corn, soy and pork. U.S. farm sales to China fell from $19.5 billion in 2017 to just $9 billion the next year.

The Trump administration announced direct aid to help farmers weather the trade war, with Politico reporting in July that the bailouts had risen from $11.5 billion in 2017 to more than $32 billion in the first half of 2020. Farmers have also received more than $10 billion in aid related to the pandemic.

Smicker said the election is "not really about the candidates anymore, it's about the direction you want the country to go."

"Do you want to continue the march in a direction toward socialism, or do you want to stay free enterprise and entrepreneurial?"

Accepting the Republican nomination in August, Trump called Biden "a Trojan horse for socialism," who would not be able to stand up to radical elements within his own party.

Biden this week responded to U.S. voter fears about socialism with a reference to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist who ran against him in the Democratic nomination race.

"I beat the socialist," Biden said. "Look at my career — my whole career. I am not a socialist."

In adopting a political playbook last used in the 1968 U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump is trying to scare voters into supporting him, says Republican strategist Rick Wilson. 6:35

Polls show 2020 as closer race

As of Friday afternoon, the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker classed Iowa and its six electoral college votes as a "toss-up." Trump is leading with 48.4 per cent, compared to Democratic nominee Joe Biden's 47.6 per cent.

Analysts say the closer race could have to do with polls that show older voters trending towards Biden, with suggestions that Trump's response to the pandemic is costing him voters.

Despite widespread criticism of Trump's pandemic response, Smicker said "maybe it's a failure, and maybe it's a success."

"We started off saying we're going to have 3 million deaths with this thing — we're at 200,000," he told Galloway.

"Every one of those lives is precious and it's extremely regrettable," Smicker said.

"But ... maybe the president saved 2.8 million people."

In an exchange with Rep. Jamie Raskin at a congressional hearing, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said U.S. states have not followed a unified approach to bringing COVID-19 under control. 1:32

Smicker did not specify the projection he was referencing, but there have been several models predicting COVID-19 death tolls.

In late March, Britain's Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team had projected close to 3 million deaths across North America in research published by epidemiologist Neil Ferguson. That projection was based on no action being taken to slow infection rates — either by government or individuals — through the end of 2020. 

In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined projections that ranged between 200,000 and 1.7 million deaths in the U.S. Those deaths were projected to be spread throughout 2020 and into 2021, based on the presumption of no action to mitigate the spread. 

The U.S. death toll passed 200,000 on Wednesday. Trump faced renewed criticism earlier this month after veteran journalist Bob Woodward released taped interviews with Trump that indicated he understood the severity of the virus as early as February, but chose to play it down.

Iowa nurse Lynn Morris, who was "very sick" with COVID-19 in early April, said she is dismayed by the politicization of the virus. 

"I think that there is so much misunderstanding of what it feels like, when you go through it," said Lynn, who works for the Visiting Nurse Association of Johnson County.

"It's a personal thing and everybody has a personal reaction. To politicize it is not quite the way viruses and diseases should be treated."

Voters call for unity

Lynn supported Clinton in 2016, while her husband, Greg Morris, voted for Trump.

"Greg and I did not agree on who we voted for in 2016," said Lynn.

"But we agree on the goodness of people, the country unifying, the communities, not being so politically divided any longer," she said.

Lyn and Greg Morris are an Iowa couple who fell on opposite sides of the 2016 vote. Lynn voted for Hillary Clinton, Greg for Donald Trump. (Submitted by Lynn Morris)

Greg agreed, saying "we need to get back to helping each other, caring for each other."

"Not the big dogs in the fight filling their pockets, but maybe all of us helping each other so we all can benefit," said Greg, the equipment manager for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team.

It's still upon 'We the people' to make this country good, to help each other.- Greg Morris

Greg voted for Trump in 2016 because he was hoping for a change in the established Democrat-Republican partisan rhetoric, and "wanted to give something a try."

He said he isn't sure about how the Trump presidency has turned out.

"One day I feel good about it, and the other day, I kind of scratch my head," he said.

"Maybe confusion might be the best word for me right now."

He's undecided on how he will vote in November, but said: "It's still upon 'We the people' to make this country good, to help each other." 

"I don't know that a politician, any politician can really, if you get right down to it, can make all the appropriate changes, stand on all their promises."

Lynn said she knows she won't vote for Trump, but wouldn't confirm if that meant a vote for Biden. 

"There's always the option to write in, the only thing I can say for sure is I will not vote for Donald Trump."

She said part of her decision was based on "concern about how men treat women."

Trump has faced a number of allegations of sexual misconduct prior to his time in office — all of which he has denied. Shortly before the November 2016 election, an Access Hollywood recording from 2005 revealed him boasting about groping women. Trump dismissed the comments as "locker room banter" and apologized.

Biden has also faced allegations of sexual assault involving a former Senate staffer who said he sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s. He denied the claim.

U.S. President Donald Trump denies his social media posts about people protesting George Floyd's death are stoking racial tensions and violence. 0:44

Trump 'telling the truth'

Trump has faced accusations of racism over the summer months, including over his description of Black Lives Matter protests as violent, anarchic and "Marxist," his criticism of NBA support for the protests, and for suggesting the protesters should be met with violence from local law enforcement

In May, Biden apologized for taking "the African American community for granted," after he told a radio host "If you've got a problem figuring out whether you're for me or for Trump, then you ain't Black."

Smicker rejected accusations that Trump is racist.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We just don't believe he's sexist or racist or homophobic," he said.

"He's basically telling the truth and he's not trying to hurt people's feelings, but he's telling the truth as he sees it." 

Speaking to Cross Country Checkup in August, conservative writer and commentator Charlie Sykes argues that Trump's perceived authenticity is how his supporters justify what he believes are wholly negative character traits. 

"It's a weird definition of authenticity," said Sykes, editor-at-large at political website The Bulwark. "I think it's a way that people rationalize his crudity and his narcissism — is [they say] that he has no filter." 

"Some of Trump's appeal is very clear — his nativism, his approach to certain policy issues. But … the idea that Donald Trump is somehow authentic when he's basically a reality TV star is one of the more bizarre developments in American politics."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from Thomson Reuters and CBC News. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now