Harriet Allspach has lived her entire life in this town 30 miles east of Des Moines, where a Maytag plant once employed every fourth person and summer weekends are for watching kart racing at the dirt track.
Allspach married one of those Maytag workers, took a job herself serving elementary school lunches to her neighbors’ children and never minded party lines, voting for Democrats as well as Republicans.
She and her husband, Gary, who retired before they watched the plant close and decimate the local economy, are fed up. They are adamantly not backing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, despite their misgivings about Donald Trump.
“Trump scares me a little with some of the things he says, but I’m more willing to take a chance on that rather than a chance on the status quo,” said Allspach, 65. “The middle class, they are being squished.”
The Allspachs are typical of a demographic — older, white, less educated — that mostly backs Trump and is more concentrated in Iowa, where 91% of residents are white and three of four adults lack college degrees. The populace is a key reason that Trump is doing well in a state that President Obama won twice. Add to the mix an embrace of Trump by conservative leaders here and Democrats who are lukewarm about Clinton, and Iowa is suddenly regarded as the state most likely to flip from blue to red in next month’s election.
“You look at our disproportionate amount of white, non-college graduate citizens and that’s a demographic nationally Donald Trump is over-performing with, especially in many of our communities in the eastern part of the state that traditionally have supported pro-labor Democrat candidates,” said former state GOP chairman Matt Strawn. “Those are voters that the Democrats have really lost their way with.”
Trump was ahead of Clinton by nearly five points in an average of the last four polls of Iowa voters, according to Real Clear Politics. That’s eight points better than his national standing.
Particularly among rural residents hammered by layoffs, such as those recently announced at John Deere and Flexsteel plants in the state, Trump’s message about punishing companies who move jobs overseas and cracking down on international trade deals resonates here.
The state’s popular governor, Terry Branstad – the nation’s longest-serving governor with 21 years in office – has enthusiastically backed Trump, along with every other top Republican elected official in the state. Trump’s organizational effort, lacking in much of the nation, appears to be stronger here. That’s partly because it includes well-connected players in Iowa politics, such as Branstad’s son Eric, who is Trump’s state director.
Clinton does have a stronger get-out-the-vote effort in Iowa. But she lags behind Obama’s, as evidenced by one early measure – requests for absentee ballots.
Shortly before early voting began, about 67,000 Democrats had requested them in Iowa, about half the total of four years ago, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Though it’s more than double those requested by Republicans, Democrats rely more on early voting in this state.
Clinton’s campaign acknowledges a close race here that could be decided by a couple thousand votes, but insist they are hitting their goals because they are focused on putting away Trump rather than trying to replicate what Obama did.
That’s a recognition that Clinton never had the network here that Obama did, or her family has in other states. In 1992, Bill Clinton did not compete in Iowa because longtime Sen. Tom Harkin was running for president. In 2008, Hillary Clinton came in an embarrassing third in the caucuses. This year, Clinton barely edged Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the contest, the first proof that the 75-year-old self-described socialist would be a potent force in the Democratic primary.
The lack of enthusiasm for Clinton is evident in Beaverdale, a liberal neighborhood of brick neo-Tudor homes in the northwest part of Des Moines that worked so hard for Obama it was deemed “Obamadale.”
“I don’t think she has the charisma that he had,” said Tom Coleman, the owner of a confectionery in the heart of the tree-lined neighborhood and a devoted Democrat who said he is “reluctantly” voting for Clinton. Obama “walked up my street, he has been in my backyard,” he said.
In Iowa as elsewhere, Clinton has also struggled to hold together the coalition that propelled Obama’s victories, notably millennials who backed Sanders. Her campaign sent him here to shore up support Wednesday.
But some of his supporters remain bitter about their narrow loss in the caucuses, which in some cases was decided by coin flips; their unhappiness was buttressed by hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee this summer that suggested the national party favored Clinton during the primaries.
This is all deeply frustrating to Clinton supporters, who believe that Trump does not represent the neighborliness described as “Iowa nice.”
Denise Donald, a British expat who moved to Iowa as a nanny and holds weekly woman-to-woman phone banks at her sprawling, farmhouse-chic Southside Des Moines home, is perplexed. About a dozen women gather in her home to call 90 voters each every week, noshing on brie, French macaroons and crudités, trying not to step on the three lapdogs scurrying underfoot who were rescued from puppy mills.
“I don’t understand why it’s as close as it is,” said the 64-year-old, who cast her first presidential vote for Bill Clinton after becoming a citizen. “We’re killing ourselves trying to help, and it’s very frustrating when you feel you’re not making a difference.”
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