With Covid back in spotlight, Iowa emerges as test for Trump. Can he keep it red?


DUBUQUE, Iowa — John Gilbert is angry and exhausted.

He watched the first presidential debate as it devolved into chaos. He saw, days later, that President Donald Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19, throwing the White House into turmoil. He also saw Trump's tweets effectively killing any hope of further economic stimulus before November — and then the president's equally public attempts to backtrack.

Gilbert, a Democrat in his 70s who runs his family-owned farm in Iowa Falls, Iowa, said he is especially furious with Trump’s response to the coronavirus — and his exasperation has only grown as cases surged in recent days not only through the White House, but also in his home state.

“Everybody here now knows somebody who’s gotten sick or even died. I’ve had some associates who passed away,” Gilbert, who plans to vote for Joe Biden next month after voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said.

“And the fact that we know now that the president knew about the severity so early, it really puts it all on him,” he added.

Conversations with 20 Democratic, Republican and independent voters in central and northeastern Iowa, a purple state that took a chance on Trump in 2016, reveal enormous discontent with the president’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lawmakers, strategists and politics watchers in Iowa say that could be enough to help Biden bring it, and its six Electoral College votes, back into the blue column in November.

“People here went for Trump in 2016 because they wanted a disruptor candidate. But I don’t think they wanted an utter chaos candidate. And that’s really what he’s become this year, with the pandemic," David Yepsen, an Iowa politics guru who covered the subject for the Des Moines Register for 35 years, said. "It's come into particular focus recently with him getting sick and actually spreading it himself."

'A lot of people here have grown exhausted with him': From purple to red to purple

After President Barack Obama comfortably won the state twice, Trump flipped it red in 2016 by a whopping 9 percentage point margin. Voters took a chance on him, experts have theorized, because his messaging against free trade resonated, and because they didn't like Clinton — she received the lowest share of the vote in the state for a Democratic nominee since 1980. And for a long while, Iowa had been left off lists of swing states in 2020, with many politicos saying Trump’s successes with new trade deals would keep it firmly in the red column.

But then the pandemic hit. And while it didn’t exactly affect Iowa hard during its first seven months, the state is suffering now. That, combined with the news of Trump himself having been infected and hospitalized Oct. 2, appears enough to make the race a competitive one.

Even before Trump entered Walter Reed hospital, however, polls here had begun to show Biden with a narrow lead, with national polls showing Biden having opened up a double-digit lead. The Democratic nominee has led the president in two of the last three polls in the state tracked by NBC News, all released since late September.

Strategists explained to NBC News that a number of things have led to this: that Biden’s working class persona and messaging effectively target Iowa voters; that younger progressive voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the caucuses won't resist supporting the Democratic Party’s nominee the way they did in 2016; and the fact that Iowa’s aging population is alarmed that Trump could cut Social Security (polls show older voters are fleeing Trump in Iowa and nationwide). Most of all, they said, it is that the public health aspects of Covid-19 have become a serious problem in Iowa.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Iowa have been steadily rising since the summer, with a huge spike happening in September. Over just the last week, the state has seen the seventh most confirmed cases in the United States and the eighth most coronavirus-related deaths per 100,000 people. And the most recent polling shows that Iowans are unhappy with the way Trump has handled the pandemic. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed 51 percent of likely voters in the state disapproved of Trump’s handling of it, compared to 45 percent who said they did, while 52 percent of the respondents said Biden would do a better job of handling it, compared to 43 percent who said Trump would.

Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa and an expert in state politics, said that the coronavirus-related political roller coaster of the last several weeks — the ugly presidential debate and Trump’s hospitalization, in particular — has reminded Iowa voters, especially its large chunk of independents, of how chaotic the president's national response has been.

“This has really reminded people how tired they have grown of Trump’s style. A lot of people here have grown exhausted with him. And the feeling that he’s been acting unpresidential has really begun to stick with voters here at exactly the wrong time for him,” Hagle said.

Biden’s road to victory goes through the East

A number of voters in Dubuque, the industrial city of about 60,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River, however, were quick to point out that the race isn’t all about Trump’s performance. Many of them have embraced the stable and competent image Biden has put forth — and several said they were well-aware of the specifics of his myriad plans to combat the pandemic, even though he hasn’t campaigned in the state since he competed in (and lost) the Iowa caucuses during the Democratic Party's primary.

Image: Tom Johnson (Adam Edelman / NBC News)
Image: Tom Johnson (Adam Edelman / NBC News)

“He’s putting people here at risk. He could have saved so many lives by taking this more seriously,” Paul Deiter, 59, a landscaper in Dubuque who votes Democratic, said. "Biden is clearly doing that."

Tom Johnson, 69, a school bus driver in the city, said, “Biden is a decent man. And he’ll do a decent job stopping the dysfunction of the Trump administration."

"Especially on the virus," Johnson, an independent who didn’t vote in the general election in 2016, added.

“He’s not my favorite, but I’ll definitely be voting for him,” Kalee Kerper, 26, a grocery store employee in Dubuque, said of Biden.

Kerper caucused for Sanders in February. Now, she said, “There’s way too much at stake" to cast her vote anywhere else.

Other voters in the city, who backed the president last time around, haven't wavered.

Katie Martin, a 29-year-old small boutique owner in Dubuque, voted for Trump in 2016 and is voting for him again, citing what she sees as his business acumen.

“He knows how to run a business, which is good for small businesses, and he knows how to run a country,” she said. “I don’t always agree with the things that come out of his mouth but he helped us grow financially before [the pandemic] and he’ll do it again.”

Katie Martin, 29, owner of a small boutique in Dubuque, is supporting Trump. (Adam Edelman / NBC News)
Katie Martin, 29, owner of a small boutique in Dubuque, is supporting Trump. (Adam Edelman / NBC News)

NBC News interviewed Deiter, Johnson, Kerper and Martin prior to Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

Support in Dubuque will be crucial for the Democratic nominee. Trump turned Dubuque County red for the first time since 1956, and if Biden were to have any shot at flipping Iowa blue again, it would start here, as well as in the other eight counties along the Mississippi River that Trump flipped in 2016, strategists in the state said.

“There’s no question that eastern Iowa is going to be the key for Biden to win the state,” Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa GOP and the editor of The Iowa Republican website, said.

“He has more appeal to working class people in these counties than Clinton did,” he added. “And the fact of the matter is, Trump is just getting hammered by this Covid environment. There’s genuine fear and concern about everything here.”

Another good sign for Biden: in 2018, Democrats flipped two of Iowa’s four congressional districts blue. One of them, Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, whose district includes Dubuque County, ran as a blue-collar, union-friendly candidate — a recipe Biden is closely following.

Finkenauer said Biden has effectively weaponized his sense of empathy, while his emphasis on bipartisanship and normalcy is helping him in her district and across the state.

“People need help. And the way I was raised, and the way people see things here, we understand that you don't have to agree with someone on absolutely everything in order to come together and get things done, whether that’s related to stopping the spread of a pandemic, or helping people make it through it financially,” she said.

“Trump’s style, you just look at the way he walked away from the table while people are suffering,” she added, referring to the president’s sudden abandonment of stimulus talks last week, “that type of thinking just doesn’t work here.”

Biden may also be boosted by a competitive Senate race in the state. Recent polls show Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield ahead of incumbent GOP Sen. Joni Ernst.

A limited presence — and warning signs — for both candidates

The Biden campaign appears to sense the opportunity for a pickup.

After not having spent a dime on television or radio in Iowa the entire general election campaign, it has thrown more than $1.2 million into advertising in the state since Labor Day, according to Advertising Analytics. Biden's spots have largely focused on his proposed response to the pandemic, and on the issue of health care.

Biden himself, however, hasn’t set foot in the state since before the Iowa caucuses, and the campaign’s in-person surrogate presence has been limited to one appearance last month by Biden's wife, Jill Biden, and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Biden's running mate Kamala Harris.

After going all virtual in March, Biden’s campaign only earlier this month resumed in-person activities, like door-knocking, in pivotal swing states, including Iowa. But Democrats in the state warned that the move came too late, and that if Biden wants to win, his campaign must hurry to make up for lost ground.

Image: Dubuque, Iowa (Adam Edelman / NBC News)
Image: Dubuque, Iowa (Adam Edelman / NBC News)

“That was a big mistake. I know they made the decision because of Covid, but Republicans are door-knocking,” former Sen. Tom Harkin, who represented the state as a Democrat for 30 years, said. “It lets people know you’re taking the extra step to meet them and ask for their vote. Even in a pandemic.”

The Trump campaign, on the other hand, has maintained a robust physical presence in the state. Trump himself visited Cedar Rapids in August, and his campaign announced Saturday that the president would hold a rally in Des Moines on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence has made three visits to the state since June. The campaign, however, has not spent any money on ads in the state since July 28, although outside groups supporting Trump have made up the difference.

According to the Trump campaign, it has made in-person contact with 2 million voters in the state. That outreach, a campaign spokesperson said, will help the president keep the state red.

“President Trump and his campaign are extremely confident that we’ll win Iowa. We have been talking directly with voters for years about the success of President Trump’s America First agenda, whether through our top-tier ground game, in-person and online events, or utilizing digital, TV and radio ads," campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager said in a statement to NBC News.

Trump himself has repeatedly defended the way he's handled the pandemic, saying during the first presidential debate that he had done a "great job" with his response. At a town hall weeks earlier, he claimed that he "up-played" the threat the virus posed.

Biden’s Iowa team, meanwhile, made clear they were going all in on the pandemic as the defining issue of the race.

“Our jobs, our children's education, and all of our lives and livelihoods have been fundamentally hurt and changed because President Trump has failed to adequately address the Covid-19 pandemic. Iowans have seen that Joe Biden is the only candidate with a plan to contain Covid-19 and to build our country and economy back better,” Lauren Dillon, the campaign’s Iowa state director, said in a statement to NBC News.

Iowa politics experts, however, said Democrats should be concerned about how significantly the battle over filling the Supreme Court vacancy could mobilize the state's large numbers of socially conservative Republican voters.

“This has really energized the right, specifically folks like evangelicals, who were possibly drifting away from Trump this year,” Hagle, of the University of Iowa, said. “This brings them back into the fold in a way that could really put Trump over the edge in a place like Iowa.”

But, as far as Democratic voters like Gilbert, the farmer from central Iowa, are concerned, if Biden just keeps reminding Iowans why so many of their friends and family members continue to fall ill, it might just be enough.

“It’s all just so despicable. How Trump’s failed on this is really a dereliction of duty,” he said. “We need to hold him accountable.”