During the eight years he served in the Iowa state Senate, Tod Bowman was a self-described “door knocker”, trekking to the front porches and patios of constituents in the rural counties he represented to appeal for votes.
They would, in turn, tell Bowman, a moderate Democrat, of their concerns – that government assistance programs amounted to a “handout”, that too many undocumented migrants were entering the country, that Barack Obama, the president for much of Bowman’s time in office, was planning to take their guns away. Occasionally, whoever opened the door would start interrogating Bowman before he even finished introducing himself.
“Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” was the typical demand, Bowman remembered. The former high school teacher and wrestling coach came up with his own disarming reply: “I’m an Iowan.”
By 2018, such encounters were happening more and more frequently, and that November, voters in the farms and small towns that made up Bowman’s eastern Iowa district replaced him with a Republican. While Bowman believes a combination of alienation from the national Democratic party and dislike of some bills he supported led to his defeat, he saw only one man to blame for the rising hostility he faced on the campaign trail.
“Trump certainly made it almost acceptable in our psyches to name call, to lie, to manipulate, to be very aggressive instead of civil,” Bowman said in an interview at his house in the town of Maquoketa. “I really feel he’s changed politics, probably, if not forever, for a certain, significant period of time.”
Beyond altering the tone of American politics, Donald Trump’s ascension to the helm of the Republican party undid progress Democrats had made in winning the trust of voters in rural areas nationwide, and many of their election victories ever since have relied on support from cities and suburbs. Whether this trend continues could prove crucial in deciding the victor of this year’s presidential election, where turnout in rural areas could tip swing states towards either Trump or Joe Biden. It will also play a role in determining control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the latter of which Republicans are trying to gain by winning seats in Montana, West Virginia and Ohio.
Few states exhibit the consequences of rural voters shifting away from Democrats better than Iowa. Once viewed by the party as a swing state, Trump won Iowa decisively in 2016 and carried 31 counties that had twice voted for Obama – the most of any single state. In the 2020 election, Biden won none of them back, and the president this year is not expected to campaign for victory in the Hawkeye state.
The rise of Trump also undid a fragile tie that voters had unknowingly reached in Wyoming, a town of 523 people in Bowman’s district that was, at the end of 2015, the only community in Iowa with a population of more than 500 evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans, according to a Des Moines Register analysis.
The next year, Wyoming voters overwhelming voted for Trump. So, too, did the surrounding Jones county, which supported a Republican candidate for the first time in 28 years. Wyoming voted again for the New York real estate mogul in 2020, and today, there are more than twice as many registered Republicans than Democrats in town, according to the county auditor.
“People are thinking that, you know, there’s a way to make a living, and there’s a way to do things, and I think it’s caused them to change parties. They’re tired of the way that the nation has been run,” the town’s mayor, Steve Agnitsch, a Republican, said by way of explanation for why Trump did so well with his neighbors.
Tony Amsler, the chair of the county Democratic party, views the once-and-perhaps-future-president as a politician whose message seemed almost tailored to Iowa. “Democrats have traditionally been progressive when it comes to social issues. Iowans are very conservative when it comes to money. Those things are something, and then comes Donald Trump,” he said.
“He certainly represented those who have been disenfranchised, those who think politics wasn’t listening to them. If you add this all together, you’ve got a juggernaut, and it’s hard to change direction.”
The former president was the pick of Wyoming’s Republicans last week, when the Iowa caucuses were held. In the months preceding the first-in-the-nation contest, neither Trump nor any other candidate stopped in what is nicknamed “The Christmas City” for the lights Wyoming residents string all over its Main street each year. A few blocks of houses and businesses bisected by a state highway, Angitsch described his town as a community that is avoiding the stagnation that can grip the midwestern countryside. There are new buildings in its high school, the library is open five days a week and though Wyoming’s sole grocery store closed not long ago, a Dollar General was built just down the street.
As for Trump, Biden, and their ilk, few in Wyoming believe either man, or anyone else in Washington DC for that matter, thinks much about the town.
“We’re in podunkville. Nobody cares about the simple people in life,” said 67-year-old farmer Steve Wherry from a barstool at Rack’s Swinging Door, Wyoming’s main watering hole, where the television was showing a local news broadcast about Trump’s angry outbursts during his defamation trial in New York City that day.
Wherry had voted for Trump in the past two presidential elections, and planned to do so for a third time in November, but with all the drama he heard from the news about the former president, he was less upbeat about his candidacy this time.
“I think there’s people that are not gonna vote for him because of all the trials and all that stuff that’s going on, and there’s people that don’t think that he can guide this country in the right way,” Wherry said. “He’s got himself in trouble a little bit.”
Sitting on the opposite end of the bar, 71-year-old retiree Craig Taylor said Trump’s troubles were enough to make him want to vote for someone else.
“He’s all about the United States and the country, but they’re just not going to leave him alone,” said Taylor, who twice voted for Trump after supporting Obama in 2008.
“We need to make America great again, but we need someone better than him to do it,” Taylor said, as he cracked open a Miller Light. But who? Conspiracy theorist and vaccine opponent Robert F Kennedy Jr was appealing, but Taylor didn’t think he would get much farther. “They’re not going to let him get in,” he said.
Heather Campbell, a 39-year-old human resources manager, believed she had found a candidate who cared about communities like Wyoming in Tim Scott. Campbell saw the South Carolina senator speak when he visited her workplace in a nearby town, and was impressed by how he refrained from attacking any of his rivals.
But Scott ended his campaign two months before the caucuses, deepening Campbell’s disillusionment with politics. “That’s what sucks,” she said, as she picked up dinner for her family. “He didn’t have the funding, he didn’t have the media funding, and that’s not right.”
How communities like Wyoming ultimately vote can have ripple effects across the county. Republicans were able to create the current conservative supermajority on the supreme court only after Democratic senators were defeated in rural states like North and South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa, paving the way for the appointment of justices who have limited environmental regulation and allowed states to ban abortion.
“The rural skew in especially the Senate and the electoral college is really shaping our institutions in a way that I don’t think people fully comprehend,” said Matt Hildreth, executive director of progressive group RuralOrganizing.org.
Three years ago in Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin used strong support from the countryside to become governor of a blue state, while last year, a Democratic-aligned judge was elected to a crucial seat on Wisconsin’s supreme court, in part because of votes from the state’s smaller towns.
In November, Democrats’ continued control of the Senate will hinge on the re-election of imperiled lawmakers from Montana and Ohio, both red states where rural voters are plenty. And in the expected rematch between Trump and Biden, turnout by right-leaning voters outside of population centers could determine if it is the former president or the current president at the inauguration next year.
For Democrats, “You’re not looking to win some of these rural counties, you’re looking to cut the losses, maybe by two or three points, which could make a difference in a close race,” said Robin Johnson, an adjunct political science professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, who has consulted with the party on how to improve their rural support.
In his view, Democratic candidates have suffered in rural areas because they neglected campaign tactics that work. Chief among them: yard signs, which he says can greatly boost their visibility.
“When I was working campaigns, you were taught that yard signs don’t vote. But in rural areas, it’s important because your neighbors notice. If you’ve got a sign up for a Democrat and you normally vote Republican, it kind of gives an okay to consider that person,” Johnson said.
Two years ago, Amsler ran for a state house seat representing an area that included Wyoming. He met many voters who spoke approvingly of Biden and were supportive of his candidacy, but didn’t want to display a yard sign for his campaign.
“I’m afraid of what those fanatics will do to my lawn, to my home,” they’d tell him.
Amsler’s Republican opponent beat him handily, the same year the GOP gained a supermajority in the state senate, and defeated the last Democrat in its congressional delegation.
“When I ran for office, I knew I would not win. I wanted to move the needle,” Amsler said. A year-and-a-half later, he’s not sure if he did. “What really concerns me is, we’ve had that real shift from purple to red.”