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To say the 2020 presidential election between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden has been heated and controversial would be an understatement.

And farmers are playing a part in the drama.

It’s no secret the farm vote has often leaned Republican and that farm and rural voters helped boost President Trump in the 2016 campaign. That will likely be the case in 2020, according to Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. Democrats, he says, don’t need to win in rural areas to win the presidency — they just need to do better than in 2016.

Farmers sometimes are caught in the crossfire. Too often they are seen in Washington, D.C., as being a pro-Republican block, and that can hurt because both Republicans and Democrats may decide it isn’t worth listening because it won’t make any difference on Election Day.

Farmer clout

“We don’t have the (bipartisan) leverage we used to have,” says National Corn Growers Association CEO Jon Doggett.

But Doggett says farm organizations have worked to get their messages heard by the candidates. For the NCGA it is all about demand, Doggett says. That means talking about issues such as trade and biofuels.

Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill says his members are looking at a number of issues. Regulation is a big concern, and there is concern about the idea of a “Green New Deal” that could hurt farmers. He says trade and biofuels are big concerns, although the improvement in corn and soybean prices in the last month or two helped boost farmer confidence.

“It changed the attitude of producers,” he says.

Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman says farm income still isn’t where it needs to be, and issues such as debt are important to his members. He is also highly skeptical of the ethanol waivers granted by the Trump administration.

“It was candy on Halloween (for oil companies),” he says of the waivers.

Lehman joined former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge, a Democrat, in a press call Oct. 21 to criticize statements the president made at a recent campaign rally about calling up oil companies and offering deals in exchange for campaign dollars. While the Trump campaign has said the president was joking, Lehman and Judge say the joke says something about the president’s attitude.

Digging into issues

When it comes to farm policy, it appears there are several important issues in the presidential campaign.

One is biofuels. Both candidates say they support ethanol and biofuels. The president can claim success in opening up E15 for year-round use. But his administration has also put two different people friendly to the oil-industry in charge at the EPA, and the EPA has granted so-called small refinery waivers for several years, hurting the biofuel industry.

Trade is another big issue. The Obama administration negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but both Trump and his Democratic opponent in 2016 said they would not sign that legislation. Trump ended it and then started a trade war with Mexico and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

His administration eventually approved the U.S.-Mexico-

Canada Agreement (USMCA). He claimed credit for a new agreement, while his political opponents said he essentially fixed the problem he created.

He then started a trade war with China which is still ongoing. While a Phase One deal has been reached allowing for an increase in agricultural exports to China, the two countries are still far apart on a final agreement. The trade war caused severe financial losses for agriculture, but the administration offset that with large farm payments.

The Biden campaign has said it would pursue a trade policy that works for farmers and has been critical of the way the Trump administration dealt with trading partners.

John Jackson, a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern Illinois, says trade wars are generally unpopular with farmers, but the Trump administration has tried to offset that by pumping upwards of $60 billion into the farm economy in the form of direct payments to offset trade and COVID issues.

"It's unprecedented," Jackson says.

Those payments may be enough to insure farmer support for the president in this election, he says. The question is whether that support is long-term or whether farmers decide over time that the long-term impact of the trade war is more important than short-term cash infusion.

Regulation is a third issue of importance. The Trump administration eliminated a rule adopted during the Obama administration regarding the Waters of the United States. That Obama WOTUS rule was unpopular in farm country, and many farmers agree with some Trump administration ideas about less regulation.

Environment continues to be an issue as well. Some Democrats have proposed a “Green New Deal” that includes items opposed by many in agriculture. Biden has not said he supports the proposal, instead offering support for conservation programs and saying he would establish a new voluntary carbon farming market that should help address climate change and help farmers.

One thing that has drawn little discussion is the level of aid going to farmers. Two years of trade payments and a year of COVID payments have gone to farmers, and that has happened with little Congressional oversight.

The Biden campaign has not talked about those payments and Democrats have generally supported them as necessary, but some have said they would not have been necessary had the president pursued different policies. The president has touted them on the campaign trail.

Tallying the vote

Jackson with the University of Southern Illinois says the tendency this year has been to nationalize all elections, so local legislative elections have been influenced by the presidential election and local ads have often tried to connect legislative candidates to national political figures.

Goldford says it is worth noting that Trump actually lost the popular vote in 2016, and it appears likely that even if he wins the election this time around he will lose the popular vote again.

“If Trump wins, it won’t be in the popular vote,” Goldford says.

That in itself should be worrisome, he adds. While the Constitution and electoral law certainly allows for that to happen, the fact that it would mark the third time in six elections the winner of the election got fewer votes than his opponent (2000, 2016 and 2020) would not be a healthy thing for an already divided country.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has led far more people to vote early or to vote by mail this year. That means election night is going to be different. It may take more time to determine the vote count.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.