John Kerry should be reaping votes in the Upper Midwest as easily as a farmer harvesting a bumper crop on the best day of Indian Summer. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa rejected George W. Bush’s candidacy in 2000, just as they have every GOP presidential contender since 1988. Most of the complaints about the Bush Administration that are heard across the United States go double for the trio of battleground states that may very well determine whether Kerry or Bush prevails on November 2. The economic downturn during Bush’s first term hit the Upper Midwest hard, with states losing tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and long-suffering farmers finding it increasingly difficult to get a fair price for their goods. Concerns about Bush’s war in Iraq are mounting across a region that has a long history of discomfort with military adventurism, and that is starting to see too many caskets returning to too many small towns. And, if all this wasn’t enough, Kerry’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee claim to be working harder than ever to win the rural counties that are the swing regions of the swing states.
But Kerry is running into trouble in the Upper Midwest. No one is quite sure where he stands on the war. When he talks about wanting to protect American jobs, he does so with all the enthusiasm of the free trader he has always been. His campaign has failed to make effective use of John Edwards, whose performance in the primaries suggested that he should be popular in areas where Kerry isn’t. And there’s a sense that the Kerry campaign is playing defense when it needs to be mounting a more aggressive challenge to a powerful and, in many areas, personally popular President.
To be sure, most of these concerns are echoed far beyond the cafes, union halls and farm cooperatives of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. But there are particular problems in the Upper Midwest that have made this a difficult season for Democrats. Kerry’s hunt-club style has been all wrong for a region that likes its Democratic politics served up with a populist edge. And, even where grassroots activists are ready to save Kerry from himself, they complain that they cannot get the support they need from a campaign that still has a hard time understanding the politics of rural America.
That’s caused frustration in places like Wabasha, Minnesota. “We can’t get any yard signs,” complains Sarah Farkas. “When we contacted the Kerry campaign and said we needed more yard signs, they said they didn’t print enough. We were told they thought it was more important to be on television than to spend money on yard signs.”
Yard signs are not much discussed in reviews of campaign arsenals. It’s easier to chart media buys from Washington than to measure the extent to which folks are willing to post Kerry-Edwards signs in their front yards. But in rural stretches of the Upper Midwest, yard-sign wars are the equivalent of the televised air wars that are so often the focus of reports on the campaign. “Out here, if you don’t have yard signs up well before the election, people start to wonder how serious your campaign is,” says Elfi Baltes, who is working with Farkas to promote Kerry in Wabasha. “It’s the way we show we’re serious about competing for these counties. When people don’t see the yard signs, they start to worry about how the campaign is going.” Farkas is too polite to describe the Kerry campaign as boneheaded. She simply says, in her “Minnesota nice” voice, “The Kerry campaign keeps saying how important rural Minnesota is, but I’m not sure they get it. And I’m afraid the Bush people do–they’ve got signs everywhere. I’m worried.”
The concerns of the women in Wabasha are echoed everywhere across the Upper Midwest, but they are heard loudest in the rural counties, where Kerry will win or lose the region. “In terms of a coordinated rural outreach effort, the Kerry campaign is behind the curve,” says Niel Ritchie, executive director of the League of Rural Voters. That’s a very dangerous place to be. Kerry aides quietly admit they have a hard time plotting a realistic course that gets them to the White House without a strong showing in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, whose combined total of electoral votes–twenty-seven–equals the electoral votes of Florida. Yet polls generally show that all three states are competitive, with Kerry a bit ahead in Minnesota, about even in Iowa and a bit behind in Wisconsin–a state some pundits have slipped into the “Leans Bush” category.