Can Bernie Sanders Win Back Iowa’s Working Class?

Can Bernie Sanders Win Back Iowa’s Working Class?

Can Bernie Sanders Win Back Iowa’s Working Class?

If he can’t, Donald Trump’s brand of right-wing populism looms large.


Newton, Iowa—According to my GPS, One Dependability Square doesn’t exist. Yet here it is: huge, sleek, with alternating stripes of beige stone and wraparound windows, and completely deserted. The old brick factory buildings around back still say Maytag in white letters one story high. You might say it’s the loneliest place in town.

For over a century, Maytag washers and dryers spread the gospel of high-quality American manufacturing across the globe. At its peak, the Newton plant employed 4,000 workers—in a town of 16,000. But after the North American Free Trade Agreement, the company started moving production to Mexico. In 2006, Maytag was bought by Whirlpool, which shut down the plant the following year, laying off a workforce that had shrunk to 1,700. The headquarters has remained empty ever since.

“Those were good, good-paying jobs,” says Frank Liebl. The Newton Development Corporation’s executive director, Liebl prefers to talk about how the town has reinvented itself as a hub for Iowa’s nascent wind-energy sector. Trinity Industries, a Texas company that manufactures giant turbine bases, has a plant here. So does TPI, an Arizona firm that makes turbine blades. However, Liebl admits that many former Maytag workers “are still hurting.”

“We’ve replaced the jobs, but not at that level,” he says. “Maytag was a three-generation company. You didn’t have to go to college. You could start at Maytag at $18 an hour. Today, that doesn’t happen.”

Nancy Brown’s husband worked at Maytag for 34 years. His union contract stipulated that he would receive health insurance for the rest of his life as a retirement benefit. But Whirlpool eliminated his coverage. Stories like that bring the candidates to Newton. Bernie Sanders drew some 350 supporters to the high school in September. Hillary Clinton, who has a paid organizer here, came in July. Yet The New York Times’s account of her house party, which described the town as a “farming community,” only mentioned Maytag as the name of a local blue cheese.

Herman Cupples worked at the plant alongside his father and mother-in-law. “My son was on a Maytag scholarship. All that’s gone,” he says. Cupples says he’s tired of politicians and their promises. “We vote for people. They go up there to Washington. And they do nothing.” That’s why, Cupples told me, he’s voting for Donald Trump.

The Republican front-runner has come to a Newton forum on “job creation” sponsored by the local NBC affiliate. When the moderator asks the audience how many worked at Maytag or had family members who did, two-thirds hold up their hands. Although Trump will make news later in the day by telling a reporter he “would certainly implement” a database to track Muslims in the United States, for now he’s trying to show a more sympathetic side. It isn’t easy—at one point, he compares the 1980s farm crisis to a slowdown in the Manhattan property market. He lies without shame or self-consciousness, claiming President Obama “actually said the attack in Paris was caused by global warming.” And it’s hard not to hear ominous overtones in his promise “If I win, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Still, if he doesn’t exactly answer the woman who asks “How are you going to ensure working families can afford childcare?,” he doesn’t dismiss the question. And though he rejects a plea to endorse equal pay for women—“If you say everybody gets equal pay, you get away from the American dream and into a socialistic system. Maybe we should have Bernie Sanders up here”—his garbled syntax in response to a query about government subsidies for wind power suggests support. When Nancy Brown calls Obamacare “a joke,” he nods, waits for the jeers to die down, then says: “People are hurting. There’s no question about it.”

The audience is mostly over 50, with a sprinkling of young people. They’re with him—up to a point. They’ve seen his Golden Double Stuf commercial, so his pledge “I’ll never eat another Oreo”—a staple of Trump’s stump speeches since the summer, when Nabisco announced it was laying off half its Chicago workforce and shifting production to Mexico—gets a big laugh.

But when he’s not clowning or boasting, Trump seems unable to connect. “I love Iowans,” he tells a roomful of cheering supporters. “They love our country.” This gets applause, too, though when he follows with “They love money,” the room goes silent. Pledges to “take back” American jobs from China and Mexico rouse the crowd once more, but the cheering stops when he says, “Maybe we can get Maytag back.” Not even Trump can sell that fairy tale.

* * *

I didn’t come to Iowa to see Donald Trump. I came to report on the Democratic presidential debate in November, and to try to get a sense of what happened to the Iowa that for 30 years had sent Tom Harkin, a progressive icon, to the Senate, but which now has two Republican senators, three Republican congressmen (out of four seats), and a Republican governor, Terry Branstad, who is racing to turn his state’s Medicaid program over to private companies by the end of this year.

Iowa isn’t the only blue state to turn red. For decades, as Thomas Frank laid bare in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the Republican Party has successfully lured away working-class voters by mobilizing “explosive social issues…which it then marries to pro-business economic policies.” Last month, Alec MacGillis added a new wrinkle, arguing in The New York Times that “many people who in fact most use and need social benefits are simply not voting” at all.

MacGillis didn’t say why. But Stephen Tews, a retired factory worker from Bloomfield, told me: “I walked away after the state party went with Bill Clinton instead of Tom Harkin in 1992. Then we had NAFTA, and both parties doing the same thing, and I thought, ‘Why bother?’ So I just stayed away.”

“What’s the difference?” was a refrain I heard again and again—not at Clinton headquarters in Iowa City, or at a Sanders rally in Indianola, but in casual conversations with people I met over lunch counters, or in the bar at the Hotel Ottumwa, or at a pizza joint in Des Moines. I also kept coming across people who said, sometimes furtively, and sometimes without any embarrassment: “I like Donald Trump.”

For 30 years now, working-class voters have been told they were on the wrong side of history—that globalization was the wave of the future, information and innovation the source of all wealth. Manufacturing was passé. Then, the “rising American electorate” of 2008 apparently obviated the need for class politics. Only it turns out women, people of color, and young voters aren’t any happier working longer hours for less pay than aging white men.

If keeping disaffected Democrats at home is a recipe for a Republican victory—as happened in Iowa in 2014—what would it take to bring them back? It was Hillary Clinton’s husband, after all, who deregulated the banks and turned welfare over to the states. Hillary herself has been sounding a more populist note lately, vowing to “make our economy work…for every American,” while invoking “factory workers and food servers [and] nurses who work the night shift.” But her Wall Street ties continue to haunt her. And in Iowa, where Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations litter the landscape and Big Ag calls the shots, her long-standing friendship with the Tyson family (whose company recently lost a class-action lawsuit to workers at its Storm Lake plant) probably doesn’t help.

Martin O’Malley also sounds like a progressive firebrand now. Back in 2007, though, he sang a different tune, urging Democrats to hug the center line and collecting money from Wells Fargo and Visa when he headed the Democratic Governors Association in 2012.

Bernie Sanders might promise to break up the big banks, tax Wall Street speculators, and raise the minimum wage, but he is increasingly viewed as unelectable. Saying so has become a badge of respectability among the mainstream press, even—or should I say especially—among those who claim to share his values.

This was never going to be a fair fight. When Sanders tells audiences “We have got to transform the Democratic party,” they cheer. But do they understand what he means? To win—not just Iowa, but the nomination—Sanders will have to do more than draw big crowds and raise tens of millions of dollars (though he’ll have to do that, too). His supporters will have to do more than light up Twitter and Facebook and put up cool websites.

They’ll have to fight state parties packed with office holders who—no matter how decent their politics—owe their places to the current system. They’ll have to train organizers, and mobilize voters, and overwhelm the party machinery—starting here in Iowa.

How much chance is there of that?

* * *

“We had three organizers here in June,” Robert Becker, the Sanders campaign’s Iowa state director, told me. “Clinton had 40. She’s run here before. And most of the state party officials have endorsed her. We went from 0 to 40 [percent in the polls] faster than anyone thought possible. Now we have to get from 40 to 50.”

Optimism of the will is part of Becker’s job description—and he’s good at it. This is, after all, a man who worked as a political consultant in Cairo during the Arab Spring and, when he was arrested by the Egyptian government, refused a chance to flee the country, preferring to stay and fight the charges.

When I catch up with Pete D’Alessandro, the Iowa campaign coordinator, at a rally in Indianola, he too seems satisfied. “We’d been asking for him [Sanders] to spend an extra day in Iowa after the debates. When we got it, we had four days to put this event together, and we’ve got, what, 350–400 people out on a Sunday night.”

As the strains of Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” fade out, Cecilia Martinez, a Simpson College freshman who credits Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for allowing her to pursue her education, introduces Sanders. He’s in full socialist-grandpa mode: “Young people, listen up! There was once a time, not so long ago, when one person—usually a man—could go out and work for 40 hours a week and earn enough to support a family.” “Democracy,” he tells the crowd, mostly students with a mix of parents and faculty, “is not a spectator sport.”

At the Central Iowa Democrats Fall Barbecue up in Ames, they already know the rules. These are party regulars—the polite Midwestern version of yellow-dog Democrats—and when Bill Clinton tells them, “I’ve watched all these debates, and I think I’m going to vote for Hillary,” he has them in the palm of his hand.

This crowd cares about offices, not ideology. So long as Clinton looks invincible, no one is going to complain that her declaration “There is no middle ground in going after these terrorists” is a not-so-veiled criticism of President Obama. Or ask how her claim “I was the only one on the stage last night who would commit to raising your wages, not your taxes” squares with her refusal to back a $15 minimum wage.

And why should they? Clinton’s insistence on settling for $12 hasn’t stopped the Service Employees International Union—the union behind the Fight for $15—from endorsing her. As have the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the government employees’ union—and both of the big teachers’ unions. The Sanders people will tell you that national endorsements, like national polls, don’t register much in Iowa.

“Caucuses are very public,” Becker explains. “If you’re in the same caucus with the president of your local, it can be difficult to defy your boss. Otherwise, it doesn’t really mean anything. We feel strongly rank-and-file folks are going to come through for us.” It’s a good argument, weakened only by the fact that we both knew Sanders had worked hard to get the backing of National Nurses United—and was still chasing other union endorsements.

* * *

Driving around Iowa City later in the week, I see dozens of Sanders lawn signs, only a couple for Clinton. “I put a lot of those up,” says Jeff Cox, a Texan who teaches history at the University of Iowa. A former Democratic county chairman, Cox is a veteran activist who says Sanders should expect no quarter from the party organization. “We’ve been fighting a losing battle, nationally and locally, against the neoliberal takeover of the Democratic Party,” he says.

Iowa has 1,682 precincts, and on February 1, 2016, Democrats will gather in each one. The process takes hours, and identifying those voters prepared to put in the time makes the caucuses a brutal, but arguably efficient, test of a candidate’s ground game.

Iowa was a disaster for Hillary Clinton in 2008. Paralyzed by staff infighting and the candidate’s indecision, a campaign that was all about inevitability ran out of money and momentum, giving Obama the victory that propelled him to the White House. Clinton, who had been leading in the polls for months, finished third.

That won’t happen again. Iowa City, a college town frequently caricatured as “the People’s Republic of Johnson County,” should be Sanders country. Yet on a cold Tuesday night, I see a dozen volunteers working the phones at the local Clinton headquarters. None of them are taking anything for granted.

Sanders doesn’t have to win Iowa. He does need to do well, though—and a loss here for Clinton could shatter her claims to electability beyond repair. I’d seen Clinton’s strength among women and Democratic loyalists, and Sanders appealing to college students and what, for lack of a better label, I thought of as Nation readers.

But I kept thinking about the sign I’d seen at the Indian tailor’s shop at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines: Cash Only. Or the old man bussing tables at the food court there, trying to plug the gap between his Social Security and what he needs to live on. Or Malik, a tall young man with a diamond in each earlobe, who tells me he’s for Trump. “He’ll bring more jobs. My main thing is jobs.” If Sanders is going to break through in Iowa, he needs to reach outside his base, to Iowans desperate enough to consider voting for Trump.

So I headed down to Ottumwa, a wounded blue-collar town surrounded by factory farms. The Morrell packinghouse here started production in 1877 and had over 3,000 workers into the 1970s. After Morrell shut down, Hormel built a plant. But as Steve Siegel, a county supervisor, tells me, “Hormel played one plant off against another.” Thirty years ago, during the P-9 strike in Minnesota, workers in Ottumwa walked out in sympathy—and then were fired. “This had always been a union town,” Siegel says. “The neon sign outside the UAW here still says ‘CIO’”—a relic from the 1930s. But bad blood persists between the fired picketers and those who went back to work, he adds.

When Hormel closed, Cargill came in and built a slaughterhouse capable of processing more than 18,000 hogs a day. With each change of ownership, workers lost pay—and the pace on the killing floor speeded up. “About 15 years ago, they started actively recruiting immigrant workers,” says Siegel. Language barriers made it harder for the union to organize. Earlier this year, Cargill sold out to JBS—the world’s largest meat processor—whose head office in São Paulo is over 5,000 miles from Iowa.

“We have Bosnians, French people, Latinos, Filipinos, Somalis, Ethiopians,” says Jim Telfer, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 230. He hands me a stack of aging contract books. “When I worked for Hormel in ’85–’86, we made $12.54 an hour. When Cargill came in, we went back to $5.80.” The starting wage now, says Telfer, is $14.70—less than $7 in 1985 terms.

“You could buy a brand-new truck in the 1980s for $10,000,” says Brian Ulin, the union’s secretary-treasurer. “When I started out, hamburger was 99 cents a pound. Now it’s $2.99—if you’re lucky. Our wages haven’t done anything like that.”

Telfer tells me, “Our international would back Sanders if they felt he had enough pull.” Though some of his own members will vote for Clinton, Telfer doesn’t “like her position on gun controls. My pick would be Bernie.”

“I see a lot of people leaning toward Trump,” says Ulin. “They say he’s the only guy running who looks like he’s not part of the establishment. Me? I like Bernie Sanders. But we worry about his age.”

Sanders and Clinton both have offices in Ottumwa. Chris Laursen, a member of UAW Local 74 at the John Deere plant, is a Sanders precinct captain. “I feel like we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “I hear a lot of ‘I love what Bernie is saying. I just don’t think he can win.’ I remind people that they can vote for who they really like in the caucus and always vote for the Democratic nominee in November. I ask them, ‘Who is the last presidential candidate who picked up a picket sign and walked the line with union workers?’”

* * *

Picket signs are the first thing I see in Chris Eby’s office—piled against the wall, ready for action. “Bernie Sanders was speaking at Coe College here in September,” says Eby, president of Local 100G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union in Cedar Rapids. Eby’s employer, Penford Products, a local corn processor, had just been sold to Ingredion, a $6.9 billion conglomerate.

“Our members made $24 an hour—good jobs with good insurance,” Eby says. “Our contract expired in August, and their last best offer demanded over 120 concessions—everything from reducing vacation days and pay to freezing pensions. They also wanted to impose a new insurance plan with a limit of $5,000 for out-of-pocket expenses. That could put you in bankruptcy,” he adds.

With 95 percent of the membership voting against the company’s offer, the workers are still without a contract. Ingredion hired LB&F, a company that provides replacement workers. “They brought in sleeping trailers. It’s all to send a message of intimidation,” Eby says. When Sanders walked an “informational picket” before his speech, it was the first time the Iowa press covered the dispute.

“It registers more than you think,” Eby continues. “We had management people trying not to get in trouble with the company but trying to get a peek at Bernie—because they can relate to it. Their insurance is changing, too.”

Back in Des Moines, I sit down with Hugh Espy, an organizer with Citizens for Community Improvement. Most Democratic and Republican politicians, he says, are “two sides of the same coin: They do the bidding of corporate power. They don’t want to take on Big Ag, the Farm Bureau, Monsanto.”

Does that mean he sees no differences between Sanders and Clinton? Not at all. “We’re willing to settle for $15 an hour, not for $12. If people are going to work hard, they need to get a living wage.” He also likes Sanders’s opposition to the Bakken pipeline, which would take fracked oil from the Dakotas through Iowa to Illinois. Though it’s opposed by farmers and environmentalists across the state, and by the Meskwaki Nation, “traditional labor loves the pipeline,” Espy notes.

So far, Clinton hasn’t taken a position. Coincidentally, the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union—among the most vocal in support of the project—gave $1.5 million to Clinton’s Priorities USA super-PAC. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to follow the money,” Espy says.

“Sometimes, people are beaten down so much they can’t see voting does any good,” says Stephen Tews. “But Walter Reuther used to say, ‘The ballot box is connected to the lunch box.’ There are consequences for not taking part in the political process.”

It was the Obama campaign that brought Tews—and a lot of others—back. “You’d go to a caucus where there had been eight people, and suddenly there’d be 80,” he recalls. This time, too, “the people supporting Bernie are people that had been abstaining. If he wasn’t in the race, they’d be sitting on their hands at home.”

What would it take to keep such people engaged? At the very least, a sense that this is really their fight. That there’s more at stake—for them—than seats on the Supreme Court, or the balance of power in the Senate. That they might actually regain some control over their own lives. Which really would require a political revolution.

If Sanders does well enough—in Iowa and beyond—to keep up the pressure, and his campaign succeeds in mobilizing a constituency to demand radical economic restructuring, that might matter more in the long run than whose name is on the ballot in November. Because if Sanders can renew the terribly frayed connection between the ballot box and the lunch box, he will already have accomplished a stunning victory. “Can a people-power movement trump establishment politics?” Espy asks himself. “Sure. But it’s an uphill fight.”

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