Aug. 16--Ron Rosmann crossed the gravel stretch of Ironwood Road that cuts through his family farm's 700 acres and knelt in a turnip field with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, explaining to the Democratic presidential contender how he grows a variety of organic crops without the use of pesticides.
After talking about conservation and the need to fight "Big Ag," the 69-year-old western Iowa farmer sat down with his family and Warren on strategically placed bales of hay to discuss her new agriculture plan as cameras recorded every moment from the other side of a weathered wooden fence.
As a Warren aide ended the talk, Rosmann said he liked the farm plan but brought up one last "difficult issue" that "really bothers" him -- that her proposals to provide "Medicare for All" and cancel student debt might go too far and have gotten her labeled as a socialist.
"I know how that goes over in rural areas. With health care and all that, socialism early in my lifetime was associated with communism, and we grew up with all that kind of thinking," Rosmann told Warren. "Rural people have long memories."
While Warren dismissed such talk as "name calling" and said she would rise above it by detailing her plans to voters, Rosmann's question cut to the heart of a dilemma facing Democrats as they seek to unseat Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.
The progressive plans many of the 23 candidates have embraced to provide universal health care, make college free and decriminalize illegal immigration have helped them attract enough support to stay on the debate stage and raise money.
But those same stances could make it harder to win over Democratic caucus voters in Iowa, where a strong finish in the Feb. 3 first-in-the-nation nominating contest is crucial for candidates to make a deep run in the party's primary process. And for some Iowa Democrats, the most important factor is a candidate's chance of beating Trump, including the ability to win back enough voters to capture swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Four days in the Hawkeye State
The 2020 Democrats flooded Iowa to make their case to voters. Our photographer was there to document their travels through the state.
Four years ago, Iowa Democrats narrowly chose the more moderate Clinton, who won with 49.9 percent of the vote to 49.6 percent for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Many of the state's rural and small-town Democrats are split on the best approach this time. Some favor a moderate like former Vice President Joe Biden, who they believe can win over swing voters, while others back Warren or Sanders, who offer transformational plans they think will improve economic stagnation and population loss in rural areas.
"What you're seeing here is a good microcosm of an argument going on in the Democratic Party all over the country," said David Yepsen, who spent more than 30 years as a political reporter and columnist for the Des Moines Register and now hosts the "Iowa Press" TV show. "They've got to find candidates who can do better in rural areas. Now, do you do that with a moderate message or a more progressive message? That's still to be determined, and Iowa is a good place for that type of testing ground."
A recent Monmouth University poll in Iowa reinforces the divide, with Biden maintaining a steady lead, with 28% of the vote. The survey, however, also showed Warren gaining significant ground with 19%, a 12-point increase over the same poll in April. California Sen. Kamala Harris followed with 11%, Sanders was at 9% and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 8%. The error margin was 4.9 percentage points.
The candidates recently flooded the Hawkeye State for the Iowa State Fair and the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding dinner, fanning out in their tour buses, RVs and even a minivan to deliver their campaign messages to voters in small towns.
Seated in a small booth in the back of the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Bruce Biederman watched a stream of 21 presidential candidates take the Wing Ding stage in front of a giant American flag to give fiery five-minute speeches before an influential crowd of 1,200 Democrats. The 71-year-old grain bin seller and former farmer said he's narrowed his short list down to Sanders, Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Biederman, who wore an Iowa Farmers Union trucker hat, said Democrats need big ideas to jump-start the country's rural areas and backs "Medicare for All," eliminating student debt, free college and raising the minimum wage. He insisted Democrats could pursue bold ideas and beat Trump at the same time -- especially if they effectively argue that the very wealthiest Americans will be the ones paying for most of it.
"People try to put stereotypes on these ideas, like Bernie Sanders is a socialist so that equates to communist. No, it doesn't," said Biederman, who lives on the outskirts of Osage, a town of about 3,000 in northern Iowa. "It's not the giveaway they talk about, it's not the big tax bill for regular people they try to make it out to be with these catchphrases of free college, free medical. It's not free, it's fair."
'Modify that song'
As the early front-runner, Biden has focused much of his political fire on Trump, arguing the president is a divisive racist xenophobe. After springing onto the Des Moines Register soapbox stage at the state fair, Biden hit his oft-used line that he's running for president to "restore the soul of America."
Biden briefly steered away from Trump to argue that the estimated $30 trillion cost of the single-payer "Medicare for All" plan to cover all Americans and eliminate private insurance was unrealistic. The former vice president maintained that the approach, supported by Sanders, Warren and others, was too costly and instead lauded his proposal to keep private insurance and build on Obamacare by creating a public option that would allow anyone to sign up for government-run health care.
"It costs a lot of money, $740 billion over 10 years, but guess what? It doesn't cost $30 trillion that the other plans cost that will raise middle-class taxes," Biden said. "Bernie is honest enough to tell you that. Folks, we can cover everybody and do it in a way that lets them choose what they want."
Democratic Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who has held the office for all but four years since 1979, said Biden and other moderate candidates are taking the right approach on health care and other issues, such as calling for expanded Pell Grants instead of making college tuition free. Those plans are more realistic and will draw more support from Iowa and other Midwestern voters, predicted Miller, who has endorsed Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in the presidential race.
"'Medicare for All,' that would be potentially disastrous for the general election in terms of taking private insurance away from people, and we'd be shifting an enormous cost from employers to taxpayers," said Miller, as he munched on popcorn and tailgated with Bullock in a parking lot outside of the Surf Ballroom. "That won't play in Iowa. That won't play anywhere."
Retired teacher Ted Crawford said he is tentatively supporting Biden, but left the Wing Ding impressed with Buttigieg and Booker, both of whom gave rousing speeches at the dinner that drew loud standing ovations. He noted that all three candidates have offered pragmatic approaches that build toward health care coverage for everyone.
"Tuition free, how do we pay for that? Wiping out student loan debts, I'm concerned about how we'd do that," said Crawford, 69, who lives in Mason City. "'Medicare for All' is a concern of mine. I'm not sure people will really go for that. I think they need to modify that song."
Buttigieg has done just that, running on what he calls "Medicare for All Who Want It," a plan similar to Biden's in that it would add a public option to existing private insurance. The South Bend mayor also favors an expansion of Pell grants and making college debt-free for low- and middle-class students.
In his state fair speech on Tuesday, Buttigieg played up his Midwestern roots, noting he "comes from the middle of the country" and can speak "in plain English." Iowa had more counties to flip from Obama to Trump than any other state in the nation, and Buttigieg visited several of them on a three-day tour.
Keith Brooks is one of those voters who cast a ballot for Trump after backing Obama.
"I was in the box and I was going to vote for Hillary, and I said, 'Damn it, we need to do something different. Let's give this guy a chance. He's a businessman. He's a billionaire. Let's see what he can do,' and I voted for Trump," said Brooks, 57, a project manager who lives in Oskaloosa. "It didn't take long to realize I made a mistake."
Brooks said that marked the only time he voted for a Republican. This time around, he's undecided but said he's excited about Buttigieg's campaign and he came away from Warren's state fair speech energized about her mantra for "big structural change." Brooks said he likes Biden, but he's "already played the game."
"I like a good underdog," he said. "I'm looking for something new."
Like Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar also has emphasized her Midwestern roots as an advantage in taking on Trump in states the president won last time. She is pushing to improve Obamacare instead of replacing it, to increase student aid instead of making college free and to create an economic agenda that doesn't "leave the Midwest behind."
During an interview in the backseat of a minivan that took her on a 20-county swing through Iowa, Klobuchar called it the "understatement of the year" that the first two televised debates failed to focus on issues "important to rural America." She said the party needs to do more to speak to issues that affect this key voting demographic in the Midwest to avoid the impression Democrats have become the party of the coasts.
Inside a veterans hall in the northern Iowa town of Waverly, Klobuchar highlighted her ability to win in Republican counties as she addressed a packed banquet room where Trump's official presidential portrait hung prominently on the wall.
"The No. 1 thing we need to do is we need to win," Klobuchar said as the crowd cheered, noting she's repeatedly won GOP counties and districts in Minnesota, a state Trump narrowly lost. "I have won in the reddest of districts. I have not done it by selling out on our values, I have done it by going to towns like this and meeting people where they are, listening to them and then going to do their work."
Jerry Miller liked what he heard, saying Klobuchar topped his list of candidates, just ahead of Biden. He said both can unite a deeply divided country and said Klobuchar has demonstrated an ability to work with Senate Republicans to pass legislation.
"Some of the candidates are too far left for me. You've got to think it through. Amy's policies make sense," said Miller, 63, a Methodist pastor in Grundy Center, a central Iowa town of 2,700. "She'll take a path that doesn't derail the whole train on the way. To me, that's the attraction."
Jim Anastasi is backing Booker for similar reasons. The 69-year-old family therapist from Clear Lake came away impressed with the senator's stirring Wing Ding speech centered on addressing gun violence and urging Americans to move beyond Trump and "overcome his darkness with our light."
"Every time I've heard him speak, he's a unifying person. He's a moderate person," Anastasi said of Booker, who registered just 1% in the recent Iowa poll but is counting on a strong operation in the state to boost his support. "I am supportive of 'Medicare for All' -- eventually. I am for free college -- eventually. I think we can work toward those things, but it's a process. We can't rush into it."
'Not so radical'
Sanders regularly rejects such warnings on the campaign trail, including during a recent stop near Orient, a farming town of about 400 located 60 miles southwest of Des Moines.
In front of about 75 people packed into the picturesque white gathering barn at the Henry Wallace Country Life Center, Sanders insisted his "Medicare for All" plan easily could be phased in over four years, noting that President Lyndon Johnson managed to launch Medicare in a single year with far less technology in 1965.
The setting was an appropriate one for Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist. Wallace is an icon of liberal Iowa Democrats, serving as vice president, agriculture secretary and commerce secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1948, Wallace helped establish the Progressive Party and ran for president. Sanders called him "one of the giants of the mid-20th century."
During a lengthy town hall meeting, Sanders drew a contrast between how his policies for a $15 minimum wage, free public colleges, canceling student debt and "Medicare for All" were portrayed four years ago and today.
"Many of the ideas I talked about then seemed very, very radical and extreme. Well, it turned out that they were not so radical or extreme to the people of Iowa," Sanders said, referencing his strong showing in the state. "We brought those ideas to Iowa, and you told the world that the ideas were not radical ideas, were not un-American ideas, but were exactly what we need for this country."
With a John Deere hat in his hands, Daryl Nelson listened attentively and later said he was "very, very impressed."
The 66-year-old farmer who lives outside of Greenfield, a nearby town of about 1,900, said he was torn on whether to back Sanders or Clinton during the 2016 caucuses. Nelson said he and wife Jan arrived at the caucus undecided, but ultimately went for Clinton because most of the people they knew there were backing her.
Still, he couldn't help but notice how many new caucusgoers had been drawn in by Sanders. Clinton won his caucus and the state, but Nelson said he now regrets his vote, noting that Sanders lost by a third of a percentage point.
This year, he said he's considering Sanders, Warren, Biden and Booker, and his top issues are health care and the farm economy. Nelson said he has "a lot of respect for Biden" and the job he did with Obama, but said the issues Sanders and Warren are pushing make sense and aren't as taboo in rural areas as some make them seem.
"'Medicare for All' is getting to be almost more of a mainstream idea in the past four years, and I like it," Nelson said. "I personally just qualified for Medicare, and it cut our health insurance costs in half. We're pretty healthy, but those high deductibles were getting really burdensome."
For some voters, the more they see the candidates talk about such ideas, the more willing they are to consider them.
21 candidates, a fundraiser and a giant flag
The 2020 Democrats coverged on Clear Lake, Iowa, for a fundraiser and five minutes each to make their pitch. Check out our images from the event.
Among them is Justin Jordan, a 38-year-old farmer who was at a Harris agriculture event at the Coyote Run Farm outside of Lacona, a central Iowa town of 300. That's where the California senator pulled up in a black tour bus with "KAMALA" plastered on the side in giant yellow, purple and red letters.
A production team communicated via earpieces and radios, and carefully orchestrated the event, including a failed attempt to get Angel, one of the farm's dogs, to run down the drive to meet Harris at the bus. The dog lay in the shade instead.
Harris spent most of the time listening about various policies on how farmers could be incentivized to participate in sustainable farming practices that could reduce the amount of carbon in the air and fight climate change.
Stagecraft aside, Jordan said he came away liking Harris, who backs a limited public option on health care, and favors free community college and reducing student debt. The fifth-generation farmer who tends to 410 acres on a nearby farm said he couldn't bring himself to vote for Trump or Clinton after twice voting for Obama. He said he's worried about climate change, ag policy and, most importantly, fair policies for the middle class.
Jordan also said he's concerned about the country running a massive deficit and adding to it with Trump's tax cuts, but he said that isn't reason enough to dismiss ideas being pushed by Harris and other Democrats to dramatically cut the cost of going to college and to make health care far more affordable.
"If there is a workable plan to implement some of these programs these candidates are proposing -- and they can pay for it -- I'm all for it," he said.
Sen. Warren tried to make that case inside the ballroom at the Wing Ding, where she focused on how her plans would improve life in "rural America."
It resonated with Mary Lovstad, who owns a wedding venue on a farm in Forest City that has been in her family for 146 years. Lovstad said she's sympathetic to why some think Warren's plans may be too far to the left or costly, but the struggles of the younger generations have her more open-minded, especially when it comes to the cost of college.
"I think there is an undercurrent of young people who are doing two and three jobs and are saddled with college debt, who can't buy a house, can't have a family, can't get married until they're in their 30s or 40s," said Lovstad, 64, who counts Warren as her top choice but also is keeping an eye on Harris. "They're struggling a lot."
Warren said making the case directly to rural voters is how she'll overcome stereotypes about socialism and government giveaways. For example, Warren said that in rural areas, having burdensome college debt erased could stem the all-too-familiar exodus of younger generations moving from small towns to larger cities to earn more money.
"When they hear the actual policies, folks say, 'Oh yeah. I'm in favor of that. Why wouldn't I be?' I think this is really about the truth wins out," Warren told reporters at the farm in Harlan. "You get out and talk about what you really fight for, what you really stand for."
That's precisely what had Cynthia Morgan packed into a sweaty crowd at the sweltering state fair last weekend, excited to hear Warren speak.
The self-described lifelong Republican couldn't bring herself to vote for Clinton or Trump, so she left that part of her ballot blank. She calls Trump "too fake of a man" and said she's likely to vote for a Democrat for the first time.
Morgan, 65, works in a surgery center in Clarinda, a town of about 5,000 in southwestern Iowa. That experience has her concerned with the skyrocketing costs of health care and the country's high drug prices.
Having two children who attended large universities also has her worried about student loan debt, which she called "huge to me."
She likes Klobuchar, but so far, Warren tops her list.
"Voting for Elizabeth would be a very big leap for me, and I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but I am so disenchanted with our Republican Party," Morgan said. "I'm riding the other side of the fence, and this is so not me. But like my husband says, 'Maybe, Cindy, it's time.'"
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