In the latest instalment of our series on the counties in which voters swung from Obama to Trump, Chris McGreal reports from Howard county, Iowa, where Trump voters have plenty to dislike but would will vote for him again

Donald Trump hasnt made life easier for Aaron Schatz. He may even have made the Iowa dairy and grain farmer a little poorer. But Schatz can live with that, for now.

This trade war with China, its dropped prices of our corn and beans but its something that needed to be done because China was unfair to us. I know were going to take a hit. Some of us are getting a little frustrated but were happy somethings being done, he said.


Schatz, a 36-year-old fifth-generation farmer, twice voted for Barack Obama and then hesitantly backed Trump in 2016 in Howard county, a rural Iowa county that saw one of the biggest shifts in support in the country from the outgoing Democrat to the Republican insurgent.

I was never a huge fan of Trump but I voted for Obama both times and I was not very happy with him when he was done. I felt he didnt stand up to nothing, he said.

Schatz said he will probably vote for Trump again in the crucial swing state.

This trade war is the biggest thing. I worry that China is just going to wait it out for a Democrat to get in and a Democrat is going to say well just go back to the way it was or maybe even worse than it was, he said.

Corn and soybeans grow on a farm on July 13, 2018 near Tipton, Iowa. Farmers in Iowa and the rest of the country, who are already faced with decade-low profits, are bracing for the impact a trade war with China may have on their bottom line going forward. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Travel rural Iowa and views like Schatzs are not uncommon. Voters who took a chance on Trump find plenty to dislike about the president but many say they have yet to be presented with a reason not to vote for him again.

Its those voters who played an important part in creating the biggest swing of any state from Obama in 2008 to Trump eight years later. Trumps victory was all the more shocking to the Democrats because the party had won Iowa in every presidential election for more than three decades. The last time a Republican took the state was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

The flipping of counties from Obama to Trump in the midwest and the apparent paradox of Americans shifting from Obama to a man denounced as a misogynist, racist and bully was instrumental in the presidents victory.

This week, and at various stages in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the Guardian is reporting from three midwest counties that swung from Obama to Trump in crucial states.

Howard county is quintessential midwestern farm territory of enormous spaces pockmarked with grain silos on the states northern border with Wisconsin. Sparsely populated it has about 9,000 residents and falling and 98% white, like much of the rural midwest it is struggling as agriculture becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of corporations. About one in 10 of the population lives in poverty.

The presidents confrontational politics, wild tweeting and chaotic behaviour have done nothing to enhance Trumps standing in Schatzs eyes. But, for now at least, the farmer remains focused on what he regards as right about Trump and thats mostly his trade policies.

For months, the chair of Howard countys Democratic party, Laura Hubka, has been trying to work out how to change that dynamic and win ex-Obama voters like Schatz back. They will prove crucial in deciding who wins Iowa and, probably, the White House.

Laura Hubka. Photograph: Chris McGreal/The Guardian

And, in a note that will strike fear among senior Democrats, Hubka didnt think the recent debates helped with talk of open borders with Mexico and the lack of any coherent rural policy that spoke to much of Iowa. Additionally it seemed nothing could touch Trump. Even Robert Muellers report on collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign does not appear to have done the president any real damage in the state.

Then came the impeachment inquiry in Congress. At first Hubka, a navy veteran and medical specialist, thought Trump would draw on it to strengthen support. But now shes beginning to think that it could be a game changer in rural Iowa.

When I first heard Nancy Pelosi say they were going to do this, I thought, oh my God, no. I thought impeachments going to suck all the air out of the room and were going to end up with every conversation not being about what our candidate has to offer but what crazy Trump is going to do. I feel like that did not win us the election last time, said Hubka.

But Im changing my attitude. More and more Im hearing people around here saying lets investigate him and get it over with. Every day he continues to say and do things, like not letting these people testify, it feels like hes piling on and making himself look more and more guilty.

Hubka thinks that the president may have a harder time shaking off these accusations in Middle America because they are over actions since he has been in the White House not just on the campaign trail.

Its the here and now. Its not something that happened in 2016, she said.

A cardboard cutout of Donald Trump stands in the back of a Corvette as it rolls along with the Iowa State Fair Parade on 7 August 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

And the Democrats can already draw strength from last years midterm elections. They seized the congressional district covering Howard county from a Republican incumbent with a 13% increase in the partys vote. The party also came close to unseating Congressman Steve King, whose association with far-right groups has made him a pariah even within his own party.

Beyond rural Iowa there is a growing anti-Trump sentiment in the cities and among the young.

I think theres some shifting going on, said Amanda Kloser, a 32-year-old teacher. Everythings in flux, which is really exciting but its also really terrifying. You can see a lot of young participants getting really fired up. You saw the same thing with Obama when he ran a grassroots candidacy.

Jack Lynch. Photograph: Chris McGreal/The Guardian

For all that, the votes of farmers, their workers and rural towns dependent on agriculture that drove the shift from Obama to Trump in large parts of Iowa will be significant in deciding whether the president can win the state again in 2020.

Some farmers are openly hostile to Trump. Jack Lynchs crop farm is in neighbouring Chickasaw county, which saw a 21% majority for Obama transform into a similar-sized victory for Trump. He accuses the president of trying to buy farmers off with a $28bn bailout to compensate for the losses caused by the trade war. Lynch said it is causing long-term economic damage.

I want a free trade so that you can sell your stuff where you want to. And if we dont get the trade war over with youll have Argentina and Brazil will go into China and once they get the market well have a hard time getting it back, he said.

Trump has given dairy farmers such as Schatz reason to wonder if he will protect their long-term interests. Last week, Trumps agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, warned on a visit to neighbouring Wisconsin that family dairy farms may not survive in the face of competition from huge factory (farms).

Aaron Schatz. Photograph: Chris McGreal/The Guardian

In America, the big get bigger and the small go out, he said.

And Schatz is open to change but cautious. He lost faith in Obama once the full effects of healthcare reform kicked in.

For me, being self-employed, the biggest thing that really hurt us was Obamacare. Our health insurance went from $400 a month to now were spending $1,400 a month for my family. That has been the hardest thing. Theres a lot of self-employed who saw the healthcare prices go up, said the father of two.

Schatz is nonetheless open to ideas on healthcare reform including the public health insurance option proposed by Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Were all paying for it one way or another. In a way, I think I would favour it. Id just have to see what their plans are, he said

Hubka is spending her time targeting those crucial Obama-to-Trump swing voters, banging on doors telling voters that the president has not made their life better.

Winning back those voters that flipped is the challenge. Whats gonna be the magic thing? If its the economy, Ive been asking people, is your life really better? Are you getting paid that much more? Are you getting better healthcare? And they cant say yes, she said. They want a change but theyre afraid of it. Theyre hearing theres more jobs and unemployment is lower so do they take a chance on Elizabeth Warren who wants big structural change? Or do we play it safe and say, even though Trump is an idiot, Im afraid of big structural change so well just do Trump again? Thats what Im afraid of.



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