When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, he took 45 percent of the rural vote nationwide. In Iowa, a state that is often seen as a bellwether for measuring the sentiments of farm country and small-town America, Obama carried the rural regions of the state. Of the state’s 99 counties, Obama won 53.
When Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016, she secured just 33 percent of the rural vote nationwide. In Iowa, Clinton lost the rural regions of the state by 30 points. The Democrat carried just six of the state’s 99 counties.
It is fair to say that the collapse of the Democratic vote in rural regions of the country cost Clinton a number of states—certainly Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; perhaps Iowa and several others—where her party had maintained a reasonably steady pattern of winning presidential contests. This is why Democratic strategists spend so much time theorizing about how to renew the party’s fortunes among farmers, ranchers, and their neighbors. The most foolish of these strategists think that the party must turn right on the issues, or tailor appeals to angry white men—failing to recognize that angry white men have been backing Republicans for decades.
But there are smart thinkers about rural America, and one of them is running for governor of Iowa.
John Norris, who helped Obama build his base in the Hawkeye State in 2008 and who ran Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign in Iowa, recognizes what most DC Democrats do not. He understands that the way to appeal to rural voters is not with desperate “I’ll-be-whatever-you-want-me-to-be” pleas but rather with two things: (1) Programs that address the complex economic and social issues facing rural regions, and (2) A physical presence in those regions.
Norris grew up on his family’s farm and came to be known as an able organizer and strategist in the 1980s, when he served as the director of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition. He helped to develop the inclusive politics of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. He organized, rallied, and marched with coalitions of workers, farmers, environmentalists, students, and immigrants that challenged corporate power not just in Iowa but nationally and internationally—in struggles that would see Norris helping to pull together Farm Aid concerts and marching at the side of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone during the 1999 Seattle protests against World Trade Organization policies. When Obama became president and appointed former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, Norris served as chief of staff for the Department of Agriculture. Later, Obama dispatched him to Rome as the US minister-counselor to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program.