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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Iowans, Elections Come Early

ADEL, Iowa -- Doris Barnhill lives in a rural retirement community surrounded by Iowa farmers, and she is well aware that her neighbors care about crop subsidies and farm policy. But she wants to talk about drugs.


And so last week she listened politely as Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, in Iowa campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, outlined his policy on agriculture. But when she had the chance, she hastened to point out that she hadn't heard him say much about illegal drugs.


"To me, it's one of the biggest problems in our country," said Barnhill, 69, a retired nurse who saw drug-damaged lives when she worked in the county hospital in Des Moines.


Barnhill and other Iowans wield wildly disproportionate influence in the presidential nomination process, simply by virtue of their state's early party caucuses, a process in which parties select delegates for national nominating conventions at conferences rather than primary elections. Iowa's caucuses will be held Monday evening.


Voters are still vitally interested in those topics, but the state is very different than it was in 1988, the last time there were competitive party caucuses here. Economic, social and political changes have focused the attention of Iowans on a much broader range of issues, from crime to education. And that has reconfigured the landscape for this critical contest, which can launch candidates to the front of the race or end their campaigns.


Over the past decade, the state has pulled out of a near depression. Anxiety over the economy may have helped Bill Clinton win here in November 1992.


But today, Iowa is in much better economic shape, with unemployment at 3.3 percent, one of the lowest rates in the nation.


The state is changing demographically, too. As young people moved away in search of jobs, the average age of the population has gone up, bringing heightened interest in Social Security, health insurance costs and similar issues. Fewer than half of state residents live in rural areas now. The fastest growth has been in the suburbs, considered rich territory for Republicans.


While agriculture is still critical, only 8 percent of jobs in the state are in farming; factory exports exceeded farm exports for the first time in history last year.


In the meantime, the state has become more conservative, with the Christian right emerging as a powerful political force. A recent poll by the University of Iowa showed that 25 percent of voters in the state are conservative Christians. Among Republicans, the figure is 40 percent, up from 25 percent just six years ago.


"Moral issues are big in Iowa," said Arthur Miller, who directs the University of Iowa's Social Science Institute. "They probably loom larger than they do in the rest of the country. ... Prayer in school ... who controls where children are going to school, should there be insurance to cover gay couples, abortion."


When Malcolm "Steve" Forbes Jr. campaigned in Newton a few days ago, he was peppered with questions on education, Head Start and his flat tax proposal. Wendell Wendt, a retired businessman, asked what Forbes would do about Social Security.


When the candidate said he would maintain the system for older Americans but replace it for younger workers, Wendt shook his head. "I don't see how this would work," he said. "How would you support the payments to the retired?"


Four years ago, the nation paid little attention to the opinions of Iowans. Since then, Democrats have lost ground slightly to Republicans and independents, but the state is still considered friendly to President Clinton.