Special: Who pays the price in a trade war?

Aug. 23, 2019 AT 9:52 p.m. EDT

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert and Amy Mayer from Iowa Public Radio shared their insight on how farmers, communities, and the 2020 vote in their key swing states could be impacted by a trade war.

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ROBERT COSTA: Trade wars and the heartland. Can Democrats swing rural voters? Welcome to the Washington Week Extra.

Hello. I’m Robert Costa. Earlier this week Democrats hit the campaign trail in battleground states, hoping to make gains with voters feeling the effects of the trade war with Senator Joe Biden in Iowa, a Democrat, leading the charge against the president.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) You know, folks, it’s crushing American farmers in my state, in yours in particular, throughout the Midwest. No one knows it better than the farmers in Iowa and those who rely on them. He’s always tough when someone else is feeling the pain and he’s not, but we’re going to make him feel the pain before this over. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. COSTA: Voters in Iowa and Wisconsin helped deliver victory to President Trump in 2016, but with the drop in soybean prices amid the trade war with China and U.S. exports of corn-based ethanol falling, some farmers are losing patience. In Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Tony Evers called on the administration to end the “unnecessary trade war.” The president, however, continues to defend his position.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I am doing this whether it’s good or bad for your – your statement about, oh, will we fall into a recession for two months, OK, the fact is somebody had to take China on. My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t take China on, but I like doing it because I have to do it, and we’re getting great results.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Amy Mayer, reporter for Iowa Public Radio; and Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Wonderful newspaper and wonderful news organizations. Amy, Craig, thanks so much for being here tonight. Really appreciate it.

CRAIG GILBERT: Great to be with you.

AMY MAYER: Thanks for having me.

MR. COSTA: Amy, we’ll begin with you. Out in Iowa you’re seeing probably too many presidential candidates every day. What’s their message on the economy, how are they countering President Trump, and what does that tell us about 2020?

MS. MAYER: One of the signature messages that we’re hearing from candidates as they’re coming through Iowa right now is that they care about rural America, they care about rural economies, and they don’t think that this president has served farmers well or served states like Iowa well, in particular because of the tariffs and because of the decisions that he’s made on ethanol.

MR. COSTA: Amy, do you believe that the trade war puts Iowa in play in a different kind of way than previous cycles?

MS. MAYER: Certainly, Iowa is always in play because of the caucuses that happen so early, and that generates a lot of attention. The tariffs have had an impact across the country, but soybeans have been such a prominent part of the tariff – trade between China and the U.S., and farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin and other soybean-growing states are really dependent on that Chinese market. So in that sense it’s an easy in for candidates who want to talk about the economy and in particular these trade decisions, and it’s something that many voters, many Iowans are really tuned into because they’re affected personally by it.

MR. COSTA: Craig, what about in Wisconsin? This used to be the state – I’d see you on Capitol Hill covering House Speaker Paul Ryan from Janesville; you had Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, serving two terms. Then, in 2018, the tables turned, Governor Evers won the mansion, you had Democrats win the Senate race. Is the trade war tilting the state even more in the Democratic direction, or is there a different scene?

MR. GILBERT: Well, I think it’s an opening for Democrats. I mean, I spent the past week going from county fair to county fair in Wisconsin, talked to a lot of farmers and a lot of voters in these rural communities, and you know, we’re not seeing, you know, wholesale abandonment of President Trump by farmers who voted for president – who voted for Trump in 2016 but, you know, I think there’s a limit to people’s patience and a limit to the economic hit they can take. I was talking to one Trump volunteer at a county fair in central Wisconsin who said it was time for farmers to take one for the team, and I think some farmers are willing to do that but it’s asking a lot of a community that’s really in crisis and been struggling with tariffs, with weather, with overproduction, with lack of demand for their product. And some of these farmers, it’s really taking a toll.

MR. COSTA: Are the Democrats trying to build a coalition in Wisconsin by having their convention there, in Milwaukee, next year?

MR. GILBERT: Yeah, I mean, they really don’t want to make the mistake – and I don’t think they’re going to make the mistake – that Hillary Clinton made, which was taking the state for granted. You know, I remember 2000 and 2004, when Al Gore and John Kerry narrowly carried Wisconsin, and they worked northern and western Wisconsin, they worked those small towns, they went to farms, they shot trap and skeet, they did a lot of things that are associated with kind of campaigning for that segment of the electorate. That didn’t happen in 2016. They’re not going to make that mistake again, but they have their work cut out for them. I mean, there’s a perception even among some Democrats in these rural communities, in these farm communities, that the party and that the kind of urban – you know, urban segments of the Democratic Party are out of touch, aren’t as supportive of agriculture as they might be, maybe don’t understand their industry the way they should. So Democrats have work to do on that, and other fronts when it comes to sort of taking advantage, you know, politically of the opening this may present to them.

MR. COSTA: Amy, when you’re on the ground in Iowa talking to voters, everyday Americans, what are you picking up that Washington is not picking up?

MS. MAYER: I think one message that I think we’ve tried to learn as the media and as a society from the 2016 election, but I don’t know that everyone has really taken it in, is that farmers are not a monolithic voting bloc. I mean, just like lawyers, and plumbers, and teachers, and every other profession, farmers run the gamut in terms of where their interests are politically, which issues are their deciding issues when it comes to voting for a president. So that’s one thing.

But as far as what farmers are saying right now, I think it’s representative of that various – of those various viewpoints. I talked to a farmer yesterday who is a Trump supporter. He’s very disappointed, he said, in what seems to be a bit of a stepping back on ethanol support from the president. But at the same time, this voter said to me he would vote for Trump again tomorrow, and he thinks any farmer would. On the flipside, there’s another farmer that I talked to one county over who has not said publicly how he voted. He said among farmers he’s talked to who did vote for Trump, there’s a lot of frustration.

There’s some desire for Trump to maybe keep quiet on some issues. And this person was telling me that he knows a lot of people who voted for Trump who are shaking their heads and looking at the options, and maybe aren’t going to stay with Trump in the 2020 cycle. So there’s much more diversity out there in opinions among farmers than I think they are sometimes given credit for.

MR. COSTA: What about you, Craig. The same question. When you were roaming around the state talking to voters, what were you picking up that surprised you, or maybe Washington isn’t paying attention to?

MR. GILBERT: Well, I would certainly echo the point that was just made. I mean, you know, rural voters in Wisconsin are not monolithic. I mean, I think President Trump’s approval rating with that segment of the electorate is a little bit over 50 percent. But he also kind of needs to win these voters overwhelmingly to get reelected. His path to winning Wisconsin goes through farm country. So he’s going to have to win the votes of a considerable number of people that have real qualms about him.

And, you know, his style, his rhetoric, his behavior is such a double-edged sword for him. I mean, you talk to voter after voter, particularly in some of these small towns, who are attracted to, you know, the fight, the willfulness, the stubbornness. But also they’re turned off by, you know, picking fights all the time. And they’re turned off by the insults and the volatility. So when things are going well I think, you know, that he comes across to these voters as a fighter. But when there’s –

MR. COSTA: What’s the tipping point though, Craig, if these trade wars continue to escalate?

MR. GILBERT: Yeah, we’re going to find out what the tipping point is. You know, the other point is it doesn’t take much. I mean, his margin for error in Wisconsin is so small. And he’s reliant on winning big majorities among rural voters that anything that cuts into those margins, you know, puts him in peril in this state.

MR. COSTA: Amy, when you think about the suburbs in Iowa, around Des Moines and Iowa City, do you have an appetite among those voters – Democrats, Republicans, independents – for gun control?

MS. MAYER: Well, I think we are seeing more people being willing to be more vocal about what they’d like to see in changes in our gun control policy. There was a forum that happened just after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton here in Des Moines. It was put on by Everytown for Gun – Everytown for Gun Safety. And many of the presidential candidates participated. It was on very short notice, but a lot of them were in town anyway for the Iowa State Fair. And you know, there is polling that suggests that many more gun owners now are coming around to supporting things like red flag laws and categoric background checks.

I think one of the things that the candidates are hoping is to encourage those people – whether they’re gun owners, whether they live in the suburbs or out in farm country – if they do support some of these proposals to be public about it, and to make it known that there are gun-owning voters who want these changes, because even though they are committed to the Second Amendment, they also recognize that there need to be perhaps some policy changes to try to help curb some of these incidents that are all too frequent.

MR. COSTA: Final question to you, Craig, on guns. NRA is a major player in Wisconsin politics, but so are suburban voters who may want gun control. Which voting bloc matters more as you look into 2020, as a reporter?

MR. GILBERT: Well, it’s tough. You know, my conversations with gun owners, and the polling in Wisconsin, suggests that there is actually a lot more support for some gun restrictions than you might think. Not everybody agrees on which ones, but as you guys noted earlier, I mean, part of what makes the politics tricky on this is that just among Republican voters, within the GOP, there’s a gap between men and women and there’s a gap between suburban and rural Republicans on these issues. And I think that makes the politics particularly tricky for President Trump.

MR. COSTA: Craig Gilbert and Amy Mayer, really appreciate your time on a Friday night. Hope to see you here in Washington at the table soon. Thank you so much for joining me.

MR. GILBERT: Nice to be with you.

MS. MAYER: Thanks for having me.

MR. COSTA: And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.

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