TWO MEN chuckle while hammering metal posts beside a road in Cresco, a sleepy town in northern Iowa. These will support the 70th Trump-Pence door-sized “barn sign” they have put up in Howard County in past weeks. Already they have erected ten times more signs and flags than four years ago, says Neil Shaffer, Republican county chairman, as he twists a plastic tag. He was tickled recently by one that derided the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Its slogan was “Vote No on Creepy Joe”. He laughed so much, he recalls, he had to pull off the road.
Mirth is needed, he says, because “the way politics are, it’s so mean-spirited now”. As a Republican activist since 1986, he sees the current “violent…nastiness” as worse than ever. Some signs have been defaced with orange paint. Many voters, he believes, are scared to admit—including to pollsters—that they back Donald Trump. They fear “bullies from the left, who are very closed-minded”. His friend, John Gehling, sees “voter hatred; they hate Trump so much”. Someone recently fed his dog rat poison, he says. He reckons the attack was to do with the election.
A short drive away, in a house in Riceville, a dozen face-masked Democratic activists swap strikingly similar tales. Laura Hubka, the Democratic county chair, has been in the area for 25 years. Never before was it this “nerve-racking, horrible”, she says, even when somebody shot at her own dog. A passing driver recently screamed that she was a “fucking idiot” as she distributed Biden signs. Those, too, have been stolen and defaced. Last week she told police about an abusive, racist message from a local man who, disliking her politics, wrote of the future rape of a family member. “Even in 2016 it wasn’t this nasty. It has definitely turned into a hateful place.”
Jane Podgorniak, a local candidate for the Iowa House, speaking as a dachshund in the garage nips her ankles, says her husband called the sheriff this month when someone drove to their rural house and shot at a cluster of Democratic signs outside it. “We’ve had people flip us off and scream at us. Never, ever would you have seen that behaviour before,” she says.
Whatever happened to midwestern nice? Many locals blame nastiness online for infecting once cordial real-world relations. Democrats finger Mr Trump’s divisive style. A shop owner says “Trump-or-die” supporters post vile and anti-science messages online, or race about in noisy pickup trucks while blaring support for the president. Karry, a Trump supporter sipping coffee in Sue-Z–Q’s diner in Cresco, says “Division is fuelled by the left; it’s always about ‘racism’.” Republicans say Democrats are somehow imposing “coastal culture” on the heartland.
The stakes feel high in Howard County, which is populated by older, white, religious, non-college-educated and often disaffected voters, including many independents. This is the sort of place where diversity means people are descended from both Norwegians and Germans. It voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, before a huge swing of over 41 points to Mr Trump last time. Mr Shaffer expects another big victory “over 60%”. Ms Hubka more modestly hopes to contain her side’s loss. If Democrats limit rural pain but stir enthusiasm in cities, notably Des Moines, Mr Biden might eke out a statewide victory, as Mr Obama twice did. The Senate race is even more promising for them: polls suggest it is tied.
Democrats can take heart from polling that shows rural voters everywhere have cooled a bit on Mr Trump. He still has a 14-point lead in rural places, but that is well short of his 22-point advantage four years ago. Commentators seem not to have noticed that Mr Biden has so far gained a bigger swing in rural places than he has in the suburbs. Polling by YouGov for The Economist also shows he is doing better than Hillary Clinton managed among the elderly. And among non-college-educated whites Mr Biden has managed a ten-point gain over Mrs Clinton. Even if barn signs in Howard County don’t all point the Democrat’s way, those are decent numbers.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Signs of the times”