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Rural voters sticking with Trump

Scott Olson/GettyImages Donald Trump pushes broadband internet
Trump's wide margin among rural voters was key to his 2016 election victory

by Mike Dorning

Rural Americans are showing no signs they’re ready to abandon President Donald Trump even as dissatisfaction grows among farmers over his trade policies.

“We’re tired and frustrated,” said Scott Henry, 29, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Nevada, Iowa, who voted for Trump in 2016. The trade fights Trump has provoked with China, the biggest buyer of U.S. soybeans, and more recently a threat to Mexico, the largest export market for corn, have “been hard to watch.”

“My support for President Trump is very strained right now,” Henry added.

Still, Henry hasn’t yet abandoned the man who promised to revive the fortunes of “forgotten” Americans in middle of the nation. Nor has the rest of farm country, which is key to Trump’s path to re-election next year.

In May, even as Trump escalated his trade war with China by announcing a new round of tariffs, 54% of self-described rural residents said they approved of Trump’s job performance, versus 41% of all Americans, according to a Gallup survey.

The May reading dropped 4 percentage points from April but that mirrored the same 4-point drop among Americans overall from a month in which Trump’s popularity had been boosted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report finding that the president’s campaign hadn’t colluded with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, along with a stronger-than-expected jobs report.

“Rural Americans support for him has been pretty consistent throughout his presidency,” said Jeff Jones, senior editor of the Gallup Poll.

Trump’s May job approval in rural areas was slightly higher than the 52% average among the constituency during his entire time in office, according to Gallup, which polls continuously on the question. The May reading is based on 689 rural respondents to Gallup’s national presidential approval poll and has a 5% margin of error.

The president sustained their backing even as farmers grew increasingly pessimistic about their economic prospects. The Purdue University/CME Group’s agricultural sentiment index, based on a survey of producers, fell in May for the fourth straight month, dropping to its lowest level since the 2016 election.

While the identity of many rural areas is closely tied to farming and ranching, other industries are also important. Only 6% of rural Americans are directly employed in farming versus 11% in manufacturing, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.

Iowa Campaigning

The importance of the rural vote was illustrated in Iowa on Tuesday as Trump and Joe Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, highlighted farm issues in the state as they criticized each other.

“We will never stop fighting for our farmers and our country,” Trump said at an event in Council Bluffs. “Our politicians let other countries push us around, treat us badly, treat our country with no respect - and you’d see that with Biden.”

Biden, at a campaign event in eastern Iowa, said he hoped Trump’s presence in the state “will be a clarifying event because Iowa farmers have been crushed” by the president’s trade war with China.

Leland Strom, former chairman of the Farm Credit Administration Board and now a partner in the Open Prairie Rural Opportunities Fund, an $81 million private equity fund investing in rural businesses, said Farm Belt residents’ willingness to stick with Trump stems from a sense that the heartland has been in a long economic slide, aggravated in part by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

“Rural America has been in decline for four decades, and I think rural residents are willing to ride this out with the hope that he can bring back some manufacturing,” said Strom, of Elgin, Illinois.

Even so, he said, “there was a sigh of relief” among many farmers Friday when Trump stepped back from confrontation with Mexico. “Agricultural producers have a growing concern about the longer term impact the longer this trade war goes on.”

Trump and fellow Republicans need to maintain not just grudging support but enthusiasm from rural voters to win another term. His wide margin in the constituency was critical to his victory in 2016.

Farm-state Republican senators’ anxiety over the toll the trade war is taking on their constituents was apparent in their response to Trump’s threat last week to impose new tariffs on Mexico. Some GOP senators publicly flirted with congressional action to block the tariffs if they take effect.

Agriculture Reeling

The trade war is tearing through American agriculture, already reeling from years of low commodity prices. U.S. farm income dropped 16% last year to $63 billion, about half the level it was as recently as 2013.

Farmer bankruptcies in six Midwest states rose 30% in 2018, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. A report by First Midwest Bank of Chicago showed past-due agricultural loans up 287% in 2018 over the previous year.

“It’s directly impacted our lives and our business, and made us have to take some tough decisions,” said Henry, who spent the winter wrestling with financial projections showing the farm he operates with his brother and parents would make a loss this year.

    On my way to Iowa - just heard nearly 1,000 agriculture groups signed a letter urging Congress to approve the USMCA. Our Patriot Farmers & rural America have spoken! Now Congress must do its job & support these great men and women by passing the bipartisan USMCA Trade Agreement!

    — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2019

Farm groups that had been reluctant to openly criticize the president are also growing more forceful.

A leader of one major producers association said sentiment among his board members, mostly farmers, had turned sharply after Trump escalated the trade war with China in May. While the board previously had stressed that leaders should support the president even as they fought tariffs, the mandate then shifted to drop the deference to Trump. Their patience is running out, said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Farm groups publicly blasted the threat of tariffs on Mexico.

‘Perfect Storm’

“Amid a perfect storm of challenges in farm country, we cannot afford the uncertainty this action would bring,” National Corn Growers Association President Lynn Chrisp said in a statement.

Trump has shown his sensitivity to the constituency throughout the trade conflict, regularly addressing the plight of what he often calls “patriotic farmers.”

He paired his threat in May to raise tariffs on China with the announcement of a second round of trade aid for farmers, adding $16 billion in trade assistance to $12 billion announced last year. And he has repeatedly suggested eventual deals with China and Mexico will boost the countries’ purchases of U.S. agricultural products.

That may be enough to keep rural America on his side, at least for now.

--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein and Jennifer Jacobs.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Mike Dorning in Washington at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at [email protected]
John Harney
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.
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