Iowa has more counties that flipped from Barack Obama to Trump in the 2016 election than any other state. In these counties are small cities like this one, where I’m from—hilly old towns dotting the Mississippi River that were once booming manufacturing hubs, union strongholds, and, for the most part, faithfully Democratic. The economies of these river cities in the state’s southeast have been slowly contracting for the past few decades. Younger residents tend to move to large metro areas for work, and many of the people who are left are older, whiter, and disaffected because of low incomes and limited opportunities, as Dave Swenson, an economics professor at Iowa State University, told me.
The Iowans I spoke with at caucus sites here in Burlington are people whom the former vice president has claimed he can win over. His message to working-class voters—and Trump supporters—has been one of warmth and solidarity, emphasizing his own middle-class upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and promising that he will not leave them behind in his quest to set the country back on the right track. “We don’t deserve a president who goes out of his way to make life in America harder, crueler, pettier,” Biden told a crowd in his hometown last fall. “[Trump] said he’s working for the Forgotten American. Well, he forgot about the Forgotten American.”
The senator from Vermont, in his campaign, has made a much different case to the same voters: Sanders is hoping to capture their frustration and anger, and channel it into revolutionary political change. “He’s the man with the plan!” said Darran Reverend, a 56-year-old union carpenter, who told me that he supports Sanders because of the senator’s push for Medicare for All. “He could’ve beat [Trump] in 2016 if they would’ve elected him.” (Reverend wasn’t able to caucus in the previous cycle, because of a felony conviction. In Iowa, ex-felons can’t vote in elections unless they apply directly to the governor to restore their rights, as Reverend did.)
People are “so tired of the way things are,” said Sara Mason, a 51-year-old full-time caretaker for her mother. Sanders is very far left, she added, but instead of scaring off voters in the general election, a Sanders nomination and his ambitious progressive proposals “might work the other way and get people fired up more.”
And although Buttigieg, with his Harvard education and his fancy fundraisers, may not appear to be the type of candidate who would attract a lot of blue-collar voters, the Iowans I spoke with seemed to see the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as a fresh version of Biden. “He’s young and moderate,” said Lois Blythe, a Burlington librarian wearing a PETE button. “I think he can bring people together.” Blythe’s husband, Ike, seated next to her, told me that in November he’ll support “anybody that can beat that guy that’s in there now.” And his money, right now, is on (former) Mayor Pete.