As far as politics goes, there is one and only one issue that will dominate 2016…who will be elected the next President of the United States on November 8. After the primaries and caucuses, and come the general election in the fall, all eyes will turn to swing states - the ones that determine the actual winner - and even key counties within these states. And when they do, the nominees will discover what we already know: many swing states and counties are rural where the “farm vote” matters.
So far, agriculture as a campaign issue has been trumped (literally) by high-profile controversies over immigration, national security, terrorism and personalities. (For more on how Iowa farmers rate important issues in the presidential campaigns, click here.)
These are the issues poised to dominate the early battle for party nominations: the Iowa caucuses on February 1; the New Hampshire primary on February 9; the South Carolina primary on February 23 and then “super Tuesday,” with fifteen states hosting primary elections on March 1. “Right now, even in Iowa, agriculture issues are not at the top of the list,” said Mack Shelley, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
But after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18-21, and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25-28, things will change. With nominees chosen, the logic of math and geography -- the need to assemble 270 Electoral Votes -- will put agriculture and rural issues front and center for candidates to address.
Rural voters will want to know where the nominees stand on crop insurance, the Renewable Fuel Standard, the use of biotechnology, agriculture research, trade and farm credit, among other issues. Some candidates have already touched on these issues; others have not.
On the Republican side, Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, an important agriculture state, has told the Iowa Farm Bureau, “I support crop insurance and farm programs that help farmers and ranchers manage unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic risks, such as natural disasters. These programs must also be fair to taxpayers, and we should always be looking at them to ensure they meet the needs of today.”
Another Governor in the race, John Kasich of Ohio, voted “yes” on the 1997 Farm Bill while serving in the House and, in a 2012 speech, described agriculture as "the strongest industry in Ohio." Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey signed legislation in 2015 allowing 16 year-olds in his state to obtain special agriculture drivers licenses allowing them to operate farm equipment and, after Hurricane Sandy in 2013, he declared fourteen New Jersey counties as disaster areas making them eligible for USDA relief. In 2011, he signed legislation providing $90 million to a variety of state-level farmland preservation programs.
In contrast, Senator Ted Cruz was named the “anti-farmer candidate” by the American Sugar Alliance after voting against the 2014 Farm Bill and calling for elimination of the Renewal Fuel Standard for ethanol, the sugar program, and crop insurance. On the Highway Bill, Senator Cruz voted against restoring the $3 billion crop insurance cut, then reversed his vote against restoring the cut, then voted against the bill on final passage.
Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul voted to protect crop insurance as a part of the Highway Bill but joined Cruz in opposing final passage. They also joined Cruz in opposing the 2014 Farm Bill.
Donald Trump, who has not had to go on record by casting votes in the House or Senate, announced his support of ethanol during a recent tour of an ethanol plant in Iowa, saying “What you're doing here is a fantastic thing, and we stay away from the Middle East, we take care of ourselves right here….that's the way we want to keep it.” Trump did not, however, take any position on the key Renewable Fuel Standard.
Upping the ante, Trump has now starting attacking Cruz for his ethanol views, saying, "With the ethanol, really, he's got to come a long way, 'cause right now he's for the oil," Trump said. "But I understand it, oil pays him a lot of money. He's got to be for oil, right?” Trump then continued, "But I'm with you. I'm self-funding. I have no oil company. I have no special interest."
Trump's aggressive stance against illegal immigration has also raised concerns over its potential impact on the availability of farm labor.
Like Trump, Ben Carson does not have a record on agriculture. He had suggested ending oil subsidies and using that money to build new ethanol blending pumps, but he reversed this view at the third Republican primary debate on October 28, 2015, where he said: "I was wrong about taking the oil subsidy. I have studied that issue in great detail and what I've concluded, the best policy is to get rid of all government subsidies and get the government out of our lives and let people rise and fall based on how good they are.”
On the Democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton released a comprehensive rural plan on August 26, 2015, saying “A strong agriculture economy remains a critical cornerstone of a vibrant rural economy.”
Clinton's record on agriculture can be traced to her days as Senator from New York and Secretary of State. She has linked hunger to global security, calling for a “sustained and comprehensive” approach to food production. She has endorsed improved seeds to increase agriculture productivity. As Senator, she voted for the 2002 Farm Bill and endorsed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). In a recent Op-Ed, she elaborated on the RFS: “We have to get the RFS back on track in a way that provides investors with the certainty they need. I believe the United States can and must be the clean energy super power for the 21st century.”
Senator Bernie Sanders supported the 2014 Farm Bill as well as the Renewable Fuel Standard. In a December 2, 2015, Iowa Public Radio interview, he commented on the new RFS level for 2016, which reduces the minimum amount of ethanol to be blended with gasoline, saying “I happen to believe that climate change is the great environmental crisis that we face…. And what that means is that we have got to do everything we can to break our dependence on fossil fuel, move to energy efficiency and move to sustainable energy.” Sanders had also been highly supportive of dairy - a particular Vermont interest.
So, there you have it at this point in time. Secretary Clinton has produced the most detailed and comprehensive agriculture program in the run-up to the primaries and caucuses; other candidates have taken supportive positions on different aspects of agriculture.
The Fall Campaign
After the nominees are chosen in July, and the candidates (including possibly Independents) focus on the magic 270 electoral votes needed to win the prize, candidates can be expected to spend more time on agriculture. Many of those swing states we will be watching on the high-tech electoral maps this fall have significant agriculture and rural constituencies. The rural vote is larger than the farm vote but agriculture issues still impact the rural economy and the rural vote. Let's also remember that in several swing states with heavy urban populations, there are farm counties that can make a major difference….think Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Colorado for starters.
Politically, agriculture is a victim of its own success and efficiency. But it is a major risk for candidates to ignore agriculture and only focus on national security, immigration and the other issues that have preoccupied the primaries. Let's expect to see more detailed rural and agriculture plans in the fall, including forestry, with agriculture advisory committees being rolled out when the time is right.
Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, DC and served as Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.