Iowa’s Emptying Nest Counties Could Spoil Romney’s, Gingrich’s Caucuses

BY Lee Banville  December 30, 2011 at 1:31 PM EST

Weather-beaten farm buildings stand along Highway 6 in Marengo, Iowa. Marengo is located in one of Iowa’s many “Emptying Nest” counties, where Republican presidential candidates are seeking support in next week’s all-important Iowa Caucuses; photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the clock ticks down to the Jan. 3 Caucuses in Iowa, the major campaigns of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have not been focusing just on the larger cities like Des Moines, but also on the sparsely populated counties known as “Emptying Nests” in Patchwork Nation. Here they are fighting with candidates who are banking on conservative and religious voters in hopes of scooping up delegates in these smaller contests.

Emptying Nest counties make up a majority of the counties in Iowa (56 out of 99) and are especially numerous in the northern half of the state. They hold few major cities and generally are home to older populations and, in the case of Emptying Nests in the Midwest, dwindling populations as younger generations left rural or small-town areas for new opportunities.

Take a look at this map of Iowa’s Emptying Nests:

More than a fifth of all the Emptying Nests that Patchwork Nation identified in the country can be found among the 99 counties of Iowa. And in examining where candidates are focusing their time in the closing days, it is noticeable how absent the leading candidates are from this large swath of the state.

For those candidates stuck in the middle tier — like Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Michelle Bachman, who has struggled to make headway in the polls; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — the wide-open stretches of Iowa’s Emptying Nests offer a hope at breaking through.

As The Associated Press reported this week, “Those who have been struggling to gain traction — and who lack the money of better-funded, better-known rivals — are turning to old-fashioned retail campaigning in hopes of wooing voters the traditional way.” And much of that campaigning leads candidates to the smaller cities and mid-size towns in the northern and eastern parts of the state.

Bachman has been hitting the state hard over the last week, systematically aiming to visit all 99 counties before she is done. That means a lot of time in these aging counties where caucus-goers clearly skew toward the evangelical.

Bachman, whose campaign has had to fight off calls for her to bow out, has stressed her Iowa roots (she was born in Waterloo) and her appeal to conservative church-goers on the bus tour. And among some voters, the message has been finding a home.

“She stands for Iowa,” MSNBC quoted caucus-goer Kay Rouch, an Emptying Nest resident, as saying last week. “This is where her roots are, her beginnings, and I think that she basically has a real concern for the people in the Midwest.”

It is in these counties where cultural conservatives have held sway that the debate over the “true” conservative in the race may have the most impact. In particular, the Minnesota congresswoman has been hit by a series of blows that have challenged her efforts. Most notably, the defection of her Iowa campaign chairman and the ensuing debate over whether he was paid by the Paul campaign to bolt her team, has highlighted how important the mantle of conservatism is in these counties.

This news came just a week after she had to put out another fire regarding the endorsement of conservative rival Santorum by the head of a Christian advocacy group Family First. The twin blows have made Bachman’s final bus tour of the state something of a battle for survival, a major change from when she won the Ames straw poll and ousted Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the race in August (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1211/70950.html).

Pockets of Socially Conservative Republicans

In recent elections, Iowa’s Emptying Nests have tended to go Democratic in the general election. But for the Caucuses, the Republican voters in these counties tend to respond to more socially conservative appeals. In 2008, for example, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee dominated these counties, winning 42 of the 56 counties in his contest against Romney and helping him win the state in a major upset.

And it may be that fact that led to the decision this week by both Romney and his latest rival, Newt Gingrich, to launch bus tours of the state.

Gingrich has launched a 44-stop tour aimed at countering attack ads and slipping poll numbers. His message is primarily economic — he has dubbed the road trip the “Jobs and Prosperity Tour,” which may not play as well in these counties where the unemployment rate, according to Patchwork Nation analysis, is far below the national average.

Romney, for his part, will keep to the Emptying Nest counties he won in 2008, starting his tour in the eastern part of the state before heading into areas where his Mormon religion may play some part in voter antipathy toward him. Although he stops in two Emptying Nest counties early in the tour, he then heads for the more populated towns of Ames and Des Moines, where he hopes to make a solid showing.

Like Gingrich, his message focuses on economics, but rather than strictly look at jobs, Romney is setting up his message in more cultural terms, choosing to differentiate his call for an “opportunity society,” compared to what he says President Obama offers: an “entitlement society.”

“An opportunity society is one where the government stops tying the hands of the private sector with excessive regulation and taxation,” David Kochel, an Iowa consultant for the Romney team told The Des Moines Register. “It’s where people — through hard work, innovation, and persistence — are free to pursue their dreams in a growing economy.”

Such a message may help his economic appeal resonate more in the culturally conservative, but still economically stable, Emptying Nests. But with Bachmann, Santorum and Perry all campaigning hard and in person in these counties, Romney’s and Gingrich’s last-minute bus blitzes may have trouble finding traction.

All of this may explain why analysts from The New York Times to Mike Huckabee are saying Libertarian-leaning Texas Congressman Ron Paul may be the best positioned to score a caucus on Tuesday — especially with an organizational effort that is statewide and has been in the works for four years and an appeal to both Tea Party activists in these smaller counties and those populated counties divided between the leading candidates.

The short answer is with days to go, the storyline headed into Iowa appears to be one of profound uncertainty. And the storyline coming out of Hawkeye State may very well be written in the Caucuses in its sparsely populated Emptying Nests.

Lee Banville is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Montana, a contributing editor to Patchwork Nation and former editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour.