President-elect Barack Obama's relatively strong showing in rural Iowa in last week's election provides a warning to both parties. If you attack ethanol subsidies and biofuel incentives, you do so at your own risk.
During his campaign, Republican candidate John McCain used his long-time opposition to farm subsidies and ethanol incentives to strengthen his stance as a political maverick. But some Republicans say that that tactic ended up hurting McCain's campaign in agricultural counties that were key to President Bush's narrow victory in Iowa four years earlier.
Republican margins eroded in 2008
Of the counties that Republican Bush carried in 2004, 20 of them went for Democrat Obama in 2008, including Kossuth County, which is Iowa's leading corn producing county and which has been Iowa's biggest recipient of federal crop subsidies since 1995. Bush carried Kossuth by 5,042 votes to 4,132. Obama won the county with 4,609 votes to McCain's 4,310.
Also, in other major farm counties across heavily Republican parts of western and northern Iowa, McCain won in 2008, but by smaller margins than Bush in 2004. For example, McCain carried heavily Republican Sioux County, which ranks second in farm subsidies, by 81% to 18% in 2008. But McCain got nearly 800 fewer votes there than Bush did in 2004.
"The message in last week's election was that you don't go against ethanol in the Midwest," says Tim Recker, past president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association who farms near Arlington in Fayette County in northeast Iowa. In 2004, Democratic candidate John Kerry carried Fayette County by 50% to 49%. Obama won the county in 2008 by 58% to 41%.
Ethanol is vital to Iowa's economy
It's unlikely that rural voters chose Obama solely because of his position on ethanol. The economic slowdown and credit crisis was a major issue, and McCain had largely ignored Iowa during his previous presidential campaigning.
Steve King, a conservative Republican who won re-election to the U.S. House representing western Iowa, says he tried to get McCain to soften his position on ethanol. But McCain ignored King's advice and kept on attacking ethanol. In the end, ethanol was one of the issues that hurt McCain, along with his support of the federal bailout of the big banks on Wall Street. King says McCain needed to get at least 60% of the vote in King's district to have a chance at winning Iowa but wound up with less than 50%.
Republican state senator Steve Kettering, a banker from Lake View, says the economic slowdown was a problem for McCain nationwide, but McCain "didn't help himself with the farm community with his position on ethanol."