Why Rick Santorum Won In Iowa: A Historical Perspective

For several months prior to the Iowa Caucuses of January 3rd, 2012, Rick Santorum, the former US Senator from Pennsylvania, and his presidential campaign languished somewhere between obscurity and irrelevance. While nearly every candidate, starting with Michelle Bachman and followed in rapid-fire succession by Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul, had risen to the top of the field as the possible challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney, Santorum’s poll numbers remained frozen in the single digits. Despite having visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties—many more than once—and his invocations that he was the only “true conservative” in the field, on both social and economic issues, Santorum’s campaign remained unable to gain any traction in an otherwise opportunistic field.

And then, just days before Iowans were to head to the polls, Santorum’s numbers quickly jumped into a competitive position with the leading candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Santorum capped his meteoric rise by finishing in a virtual tie for first place with Romney, losing by a grand total of eight votes. Explanations for this dramatic ascent varied, but two predominated. First, it seemed merely to be Santorum’s turn. With nearly every other candidate having surged, only to eventually falter (whether due to alleged marital infidelities and sexual misconduct, in the case of Cain, or debate blunders, such as Rick Perry’s dramatic “oops” moment), Santorum’s campaign managed to achieve its climax at the perfect time. As conservative Republicans continued to search for a viable alternative to the far too moderate Mitt Romney, Santorum happened to claim the mantle of being the latest “anti-Romney” as the caucus date finally arrived. Unscathed by the negative attack ads that seemed to fell Newt Gingrich and with no time for a close inspection of his political or personal record, Santorum’s success was an example of timing truly being everything.

The second theory, repeated with painful redundancy by CNN’s John King as he surveyed his digital map of Iowa’s counties, was that the touted evangelical vote had finally chosen its standard-bearer. Much like Mike Huckabee four years before, Santorum won most of his support from Iowa’s rural and small-town communities, areas where evangelical religion had always been presumed to dictate voting behavior. While Iowa’s urban and suburban counties seemed to favor either Ron Paul or Mitt Romney when the time came to choose, rural and small-town Iowans voted heavily for the former Senator from Pennsylvania. Indeed, Santorum, a devout Roman Catholic, often referred to himself as a “conscience conservative” and openly claimed to be the representative of America’s “family values.” These postures, along with his past stances on abortion, intelligent design, gay marriage, and a variety of other religio-cultural issues, seemed to make Santorum a clear choice among Iowa’s rural evangelicals.

And yet, when it finally came time for Santorum to approach the podium to thank his supporters for their help and Iowans for choosing him, he decided to downplay his cultural conservative positions. Rather, Santorum explained his success among rural and small-town Iowans in this way:

I believe that we as Republicans have to look at those who are not doing well in our society…That is why I put forth a plan that Iowans responded to…When I traveled around Iowa to the small towns I found a lot of those smalls towns were just like the small towns I traveled around in Pennsylvania, they were towns that were centered around manufacturing and processing, those good jobs that built those towns. And those jobs slowly, whether its in Hamburg, whether it’s in Newton or anyplace in between, we found those jobs leaving Iowa. Why? Because our workers didn’t want to work, because our workers weren’t competitive? No. It’s because government made workers uncompetitive by driving up the cost of doing business here. It’s twenty percent more expensive to do manufacturing jobs in this country than it is in the top nine trading partners that we have to compete with. And that’s why we’re losing our jobs…So we [need to] eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturing so we can compete, we take the regulations…and we repeal all those regulations.

According to Santorum, his political victory was the result not primarily of evangelical support, but rather of an economic program that promised to increase manufacturing employment through low corporate tax rates, deregulation, and cheaper labor costs. The desired result would be to make Iowa’s rural and small-town communities more competitive in attaining industrial plants. It seems that Rick Santorum was the only person commentating on the Iowa caucuses who thought that his victory rested upon what had been the central focus of the entire Republican primary: the economy.

Rick Santorum managed a near victory in Iowa because he tapped into an economic program with deep historical roots. Indeed, one cannot explain Santorum’s appeal among rural and small-town voters without understanding the large-scale economic processes affecting the post-World War II American countryside. At the center of Iowa’s postwar economic transformations were rural and small-town communities who engaged in a widespread campaign to attain manufacturing and industrial employment to offset the loss of jobs rapidly disappearing in the agricultural sector.

 

In the quarter century after World War II, Iowa’s farming economy experienced a dramatic consolidation as government policies and scientific innovations combined to create what David Danbom termed “the production revolution.”[1] Laboratory advancements in the fields of hybrid seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers complemented the earlier move towards farm mechanization through the use of combines and tractors, resulting in a major increase in farm productivity. Government transfer payments in the form of price supports for agricultural commodities and crop reduction programs provided farmers with the necessary capital to utilize these technological and scientific advancements. As capital investments supplanted previously labor-intensive methods, the demand for farm laborers significantly decreased. Simultaneously, agricultural surpluses brought on by increasing productivity resulted in falling crop prices, leading large productive farms to expand their operations so as to make up for smaller profits per unit with increased volume. Suboptimal farms, unable to compete with heavily capitalized large landholders, looked to profit from rising property values by selling out to their more competitive and politically well-connected neighbors. Essentially, farms became larger and larger with fewer and fewer farmers.[2]

The overall result of these developments was to push both wage laborers and smaller independent farmers out of the agricultural sector. Rural Iowans were painfully aware of these circumstances, as one small-town newspaper described the situation in 1950, “Today one person in five lives on a farm. Forty years ago one person in three lived on a farm…The modern farmer is a much better producer than his counterpart of 40 years ago….One might think that this…fact would inspire a movement back to the farm among town and city folk. It has not done this, for the farm population continues to grow smaller and smaller and at a progressively increasing speed.”[3]

Transformations within American agriculture wrecked havoc on rural and small-town social systems. Traditionally, rural small-towns had served as the center of economic life for the surrounding agricultural countryside. Iowa’s small towns often functioned as transportation depots along the nation’s railroad network where farmers traveled to ship their crops to far off markets and purchase needed consumer goods from local merchants.

However, with fewer economic opportunities in the farming economy, rural communities experienced a massive outmigration of inhabitants. These displaced former farmers took with them the resources that sustained rural and small-town life. Small-town businesses and retailers suffered as consumer purchases dwindled along with local populations. Rural institutions, including churches, schools, and social clubs, were forced to either consolidate to make up for smaller memberships or close their doors. With fewer residents, property taxes rose in rural areas as the cost for public services was spread out over a smaller group of people.

The town of Centerville, Iowa, located in the rural county of Appanoose, was hard hit by these developments. The Centerville Iowegian, the town’s newspaper, explained how the “downward pressures” of “farm consolidation” and the evaporation of coal mining operations resulted in “population out-migration since there were not enough job opportunities to hold the people here.” According to the newspaper, “Appanoose county had a net out-migration of 21.0 per cent between 1950 and 1960.” Appanoose’s population stood at 19,683 in 1950, and despite an “excess of births over deaths,” the population declined by 4,211 people during the 1950s for a grand total of 16,015 inhabitants in 1960. The social ramifications of this tremendous loss in population were overwhelming. Since many of those leaving rural Appanoose were younger inhabitants, Appanoose lost “the people working most productively, rearing families, starting new homes and providing the necessary community leadership.” The loss of people and jobs in the farming sector rippled outward as retail sales in Centerville slowed throughout the 1950s and then declined by 2.2 per cent between 1958 and 1960. [4]

In response to the rapid disappearance of farming jobs, rural small-town elites began pursuing industrial firms to locate their operations in Iowa’s smaller communities. These local leaders—consisting primarily of bankers, real estate agents, newspaper editors, insurance brokers, construction contractors, and utilities managers—proposed to reconstruct rural and small-town economies around a new industrial base. To carry out this project, rural elites organized “industrial development corporations” as a vehicle for contacting and negotiating with manufacturing prospects; bulldozed nonproductive farm land to lay the groundwork for industrial sites; constructed industrial buildings and plants “on spec” for lease to manufacturing firms; and sold bonds for the purpose of modernizing their communities’ electric, sewage, and water utilities. Starting in 1963 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa (a town of 7,339 at the time) rural areas also began using industrial revenue bonds as a tool for subsidizing the costs of new business locations.

At the same time, these rural small-town elites formed an alliance with the Iowa Development Commission (IDC), which actively solicited their participation in the state campaign for industrial development. The IDC pitched industrialization as a comprehensive solution for stabilizing rural communities in decline. As the Lenox Time Table reported, Rodney Q. Selby, the commission director, explained how “a small factory added to a community could mean an annual increase of $312,875 to retail business.” Even when “employing as little as 150 people” a new factory “produces $91,000 worth of grocery business,” “$39,600 in retail apparel,” $24,200 in furniture and household goods” and “$17,500 in lumber and building sundries.”[5]

Many Iowa communities bought into the program of industrial development out of a belief that it offered the only solution for avoiding the fate of becoming a depopulated rural area or a dying small town. “Every community needs industry,” the Lenox Time Table argued. “Without industry the community fails to be useful to itself. When a community fails to be useful it goes into a state of decadence. All that is necessary is to take a look at some of the small communities that are without industry, and that alone will speak for itself…There is no better means of getting activity and action than through industry and employment. Farm population has declined and there is no prospect in the future that it will increase.”[6]

Despite the positive picture painted by local elites and the IDC, rural industrialization was far from a politically neutral project. The IDC, along with its primary backer the Iowa Manufacturers Association (the IMA was a state branch of the National Association of Manufacturers), linked rural industrial development with an anti-New Deal, conservative economic agenda. The IDC and the IMA argued that New Deal politics, primarily in the form of powerful labor unions, expansive social welfare programs, and high corporate tax rates, were antithetical to the overall program of rural industrialization. These liberal institutions and policies, according to business conservatives, created a negative “business climate” for the state of Iowa and scared off corporate investment that rural communities were actively soliciting.

Conservative business interests looked to incorporate rural small-town elites, and by proxy their local constituencies, within their struggle to beat back gains made by organized labor. Much of this political inculcation took place in IDC sponsored industrial development clinics, where rural small-town elites were taught tools for luring manufacturing firms along with a heavy dose of conservative economic ideology. At one such clinic held in 1965, David H. Jacquith, the president of Vega industries—a metal fabricating company that had relocated to Mount Pleasant, Iowa in 1965— “urged Iowans to protect their business climate and said one of the best ways was to preserve the state’s right-to-work laws as it now stands on the books.” Jacquith, who had visited numerous small-towns in rural southern Iowa, argued that, “small and medium-sized manufacturers…look first to the presence of a right to work law as an indication of the business climate.” Jacquith linked this conservative economic agenda to agricultural consolidation when he suggested that if rural small-towns desired to “maintain an accelerating industrial growth to make up for a decline in farm jobs,” they “need to take special care of their business climate.”[7]

In the realm of partisan politics, the state’s traditionally dominant Republican party looked to use industrial development as a way to keep rural and small-town Iowans within the party fold. Despite having controlled state politics since the civil war, Iowa’s Republicans faced a resurgent Democratic Party in the postwar era. Since the emergence of the New Deal in the 1930s, Iowa’s Democrats had been making major inroads within the state by mimicking the national party’s policies and coalitions.[8] In order to maintain control of political power, the Republican Party looked to cultivate rural and small-town communities as a bulwark against the growing strength of the New Deal Democratic establishment.[9] The Republican Party did so by tapping into the economic program constructed by business conservatives in the IDC and IMA. In an article titled, “Industrial Expansion is a No.1 Campaign Topic,” William G. Murray, a candidate for the 1958 Republican gubernatorial nomination, argued that he was “opposed to any change in the ‘right to work’ laws” since to “develop industry in Iowa; it takes good tax and labor laws.” [10]

Republican politicians argued that rural industrialization would be undermined by the growth of powerful labor unions and the expansion of New Deal social welfare programs. Expensive government programs, party strategists stated, would result in high corporate tax rates that would lead manufacturing firms to invest elsewhere. Similarly, powerful labor organization, such as the state’s recently united AFL-CIO, would push for exorbitant wage rates which would price Iowa’s rural laborers out of the competition for new industrial jobs.

The combined efforts of Iowa’s business conservatives and Republican strategists made rural and small-town areas a hotbed of anti-New Deal political activity. Rural and small-town communities, grappling with the rapid loss of jobs within the farming sector and the concomitant effects this process had on rural institutions, turned to industrial development as the solution for stabilizing their declining economies. With few alternatives available for stemming their downward slide, rural and small-town Iowans adopted a conservative economic program based on stringent anti-labor laws, low corporate tax rates, deregulation, and minimal social welfare programs. The widespread success of this conservative political project has been noted by political scientists analyzing Iowa’s voting data who have argued that rural small-towns under 10,000 represent the most stable voting bloc for Iowa’s modern Republican party.[11]

Within the context of rural Iowa’s postwar transformations, Rick Santorum’s success in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses seems hardly surprising. Santorum’s economic vision for bringing manufacturing jobs to Iowa’s rural areas by lowering corporate taxation, limiting government regulation, and weakening the power of organized labor was anything but visionary. Santorum’s platform, which he had been consistently pitching in Republican debates since he entered the field, found a suitable audience in Iowa’s rural and small-town communities that had been attempting to achieve industrial development through conservative economic policies for over sixty years. The groundwork for Santorum’s come-from-behind political victory was laid not by Republican’s lukewarm feelings about Mitt Romney or the failings of his conservative counterparts in the primary field, but rather by large-scale transformations within the postwar political economy and the efforts of conservative business interests allied with rural and small-town elites.

Keith Orejel is a Richard Hofstadter Fellow at Columbia University, where he is pursuing his doctorate in History.

[1] David B. Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America, Second Edition (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006), Chapter 11.

[2] Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), Epilogue; Daniel Nelson, Farm and Factory: Workers in the Midwest, 1880-1990 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

[3] The Lenox Time Table, 5 January, 1950, 4.

[4] “Our Decline Forced Us to Attract Industries: Not Always Zoom, Boom,” Centerville Iowegian, 26 February 1965, 10.

[5] “How A Factory Boosts Towns Retail Sales,” Lenox Time Table, 26 February, 1953, 1.

[6] “Invest in Your Community,” Lenox Time Table, 9 August 1962, 1.

[7] “Iowa Industrial Potential High: Creston Group at Development Clinic,” Creston News Advertiser, 10 May 1965, 1.

[8] James C. Larew, A Party Reborn: The Democrats of Iowa, 1950-1974 (Iowa State Historical Department, Division of the State Historical Society, 1980).

[9] Thomas Dale Unga, The Republican Party in Iowa: 1946-1956 (PhD. Dissertation, State University of Iowa, 1957).

[10] “Industrial Expansion is a No.1 Campaign Topic,” Creston News Advertiser, 30 October, 1958, 5.

[11] Harlan Hahn, Urban-Rural Conflict: The Politics of Change (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1971), 84-85.

Comments

  1. Did Keith write that caption? Nice work, man. Riding the wave of history.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Author's note: Readers may psychically remove the "almost" from the title, as Rick Santorum was officially declared the winner in Iowa's Republican Party final tally

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  1. […] neoliberal economic policies that appealed to white rural voters (for more on this see my piece on Rick Santorum) while dominating the African American vote of the rural southern black belt. However, as American […]

  2. […] Why Santorum Won in Iowa: A Historical Perspective […]

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