Running Out of Hay Bales
The fertile soil of Iowa has made its agricultural exports second only to California. But when it comes to the rural Americana that presidential contenders want for a backdrop, the state's capital sometimes has to import it.
"We've had examples of hay bales being brought into Des Moines. It's kind of funny," says Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
In 1988, New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu reportedly joked that "Iowa picks corn; New Hampshire picks presidents." But these days, the heartland imagery is meant more for the national audience than voters in the Iowa caucus, scheduled for January 14. The increasingly urban and diverse Iowa population now does less picking of corn and-compared with New Hampshire, which tapped John McCain in 2000 and Pat Buchanan in 1996-has more success in picking the nominee.
In a state with less population growth since 1900 than any other, nothing happens overnight. But Iowa's 20 metropolitan counties now hold 55.2 percent of the population, up from 53.4 percent in 2000. In that time, the metropolitan counties gained over 81,000 residents, while the rest of the state lost over 25,000. Des Moines is one of the 100 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, fueled by a finance industry presence that includes Principal Financial Group and Wells Fargo.
Identity. Between 1974 and 2002, the number of people operating farms in the state declined from about 102,000 to about 62,000; agriculture now makes up less than 5 percent of the state's gross domestic product. That still adds up to billions of dollars a year, and agriculture's clout is larger when peripheral industries like food processing are included. Farming also still plays a powerful role in Iowa's sense of identity.
"I think the main resonance to nonfarmers of agriculture is the value structure," says longtime Iowa GOP Rep. Jim Leach, who was defeated in November: "the values of both work and entrepreneurship and producing and making things."
Bucking stereotypes, polls of Iowa voters suggest agriculture is now a secondary concern. A survey in May showed Iraq and international relations topping Democrats' priorities, while Republicans are most concerned about terrorism and moral values. The economy and jobs place no higher than fourth on either party's issue lists, while ethanol and renewable energy struggle to make the top 10.
Republicans do rank immigration issues among their top five concerns, as the state's meatpacking industry draws a rapidly growing Latino population to towns like Perry and Storm Lake. The state remains over 90 percent non-Hispanic white, but there are now 114,700 Iowans who identify as Hispanic, a 39 percent increase from 2000. A March survey found majority support in both parties for an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In a once stagnant state, growth is growth.
"If your town has a lot of illegal immigrants," says Doug Jones, an Iowa City Democrat, "that means it's not dead."
With Jennifer Seter Wagner
This story appears in the June 11, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.