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Iowa Isn’t The State Presidential Candidates Pretend It Is


Marco Cibola

My fellow Iowans will tell me they live in a farm state, that agriculture is Iowa’s life blood. So will the presidential candidates, who trek to the Iowa State Fair1 and other farm settings and put on checked shirts and dust off whatever farming bona fides they can muster.

“This is not a new cause for me,” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said while standing in front of a John Deere tractor on an Iowa campaign stop.

“Now a lot of people, and probably a number of you here today, don’t realize this, but New York — where I was elected to the Senate twice — is actually a major farm state,” she said.

“One day,” she recalled, “I brought a picture of a New York dairy cow down to the Senate to give a speech about, ‘We do have cows in New York.’ And when I finished, one of my friends from a Midwestern state that will remain nameless came up to me and said, ‘OK, so you’ve got one cow.’”

In February, Iowans will cast the first votes of the presidential nominating process, just as they have for 44 years. Over that time, reams of paper and pixels have been spent on the question of whether a racially homogenous and basically agricultural state should have such a prominent role.2 But the state is not exactly the bucolic land of yeoman farmers that candidates, critics and Iowans themselves think it is.

Iowa is whiter than the country but has grown more diverse. It houses multinational corporations and more people whose work revolves around spreadsheets than around tractors.

Some of that has to do with the march of time. Since 1972, Iowa has in many ways become less and less an outlier as farmers went broke, and African-Americans and Hispanics migrated to its cities.

Yet in other ways the state never quite lived up to its reputation.


Even in the early 1970s, the notion of Iowa as an agricultural bastion was dated. At that point, U.S. census data shows,3 about 13 percent of Iowans worked on and around farms and ranches. Yet at that time 20 percent of the state’s population worked in manufacturing.

Then, as the population grew, changes to agriculture sent the number of farmers even further downward. Thanks to the farm bust of the 1980s and the ever-growing industrialization of crop production, just 3.8 percent of Iowa’s population worked in agriculture in 2014.4

Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of Iowans now work in finance, in real estate or for companies involved in professional services such as health care, law and accounting.

Take Cedar Rapids. As you drive into town you see cornfields and smell whatever breakfast cereal is being cooked up by the 900 employees of the 15-acre Quaker Foods and Snacks plant. It seems like a city that’s all about feeding America.

It isn’t. Try engineering and insurance.

Aerospace giant Rockwell Collins employs 8,700 engineers, marketers, executives and others its corporate headquarters. Transamerica, an insurance and financial services company owned by a European multinational, employs close to 4,000.


After homesteaders came pouring during the 1830s and 1840s, until around 1960, more than 99 percent of Iowans were non-Hispanic whites.

Indeed, because Iowa was a free state before the Civil War, few African-Americans were brought into the state as slaves. Other social, economic and legal barriers meant few black people or other minorities were ever granted homesteads. And — without a big city like Detroit, Milwaukee or Chicago — Iowa attracted few blacks during the Great Migration from the South.

For decades, calling Iowa “lily-white” was an understatement.

In 1970, data shows that Iowa’s non-white population was still about 2 percent, making Iowa one of the states with the smallest minority populations. Blacks made up the largest non-white share, at 1.1 percent, followed by Hispanics at 0.7 percent.5

That put the state on the statistical margins; it was one-eighth as diverse as the country overall, which was 16.6 percent non-white then.6

In 2014, Iowa’s minority population was 12.9 percent, about one-third the national share of 38.1 percent. That’s still a large gap, but it’s enough of a change to put minority residents in the category of “low” rather than “no.”

Picker of presidents

Iowans and political insiders will tell you that the state’s privileged place shapes the nomination and picking of presidents. So Iowa’s preferred candidates win the nomination and then the presidency?

Yes and no.

The state serves as a winnowing ground for both parties. Since Iowa has come first in the presidential nominating process, a top-three finisher in Iowa has been nominated in 14 of 16 contested primaries.7

But in the 11 presidential elections since 1972, only twice has the winner of a contested caucus gone on to become president.8

Maybe that’s evidence Iowans don’t have their finger on what voters want nationally. Or, maybe no state would be representative enough to go first and get it “right” all the time. Either way, it’s time to drop the Iowa-is-all-cornfields caricature. Today, the state’s workforce has few farmers, and its population’s diversity is within the mainstream.

If the conventional wisdom on Iowa was ever true, it has become less so every year.


  1. It’s worth a trip. Even if you find the Butter Cow overrated, the fried foods are dangerously tasty.

  2. Including at least one book, “Why Iowa?

  3. Unless otherwise noted, all census data is taken from the University of Minnesota’s National Historical Geographic Information System.

  4. That’s about the same as Wyoming, where the shale energy boom has remade the economy.

  5. The way race and data on Hispanics are reported by the U.S. Census Bureau has changed. Hispanic status is now broken out by race, and information on race is now broken out for people who identify as more than one race. Because the 2 percent figure assumes all Hispanics reported their race as white, the true figure for 1970 may be even lower.

  6. U.S. Census Bureau.

  7. It’s worth noting, however, that in many of those cases there were no more than three serious candidates by caucus time.

  8. Three times, if you count President Jimmy Carter. He came in second in 1976 behind “uncommitted.”

Daniel Lathrop is a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, and a former reporter for The Dallas Morning News.