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Iowa's Political Landscape Looks Different Than When Trump Last Visited

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Iowa is one of those swing states that seemed to be moving out of reach for Democrats. In a time of racial polarization, it is much whiter than the nation as a whole. And Iowa voted for President Trump by 9 points - a big margin - in 2016. Today, the president is campaigning in Iowa, which no longer seems safe for him. Here's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I worked so hard for this state.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: The political landscape looked a lot different the last time President Donald Trump was in Iowa. It was January, just days before Democrats competed in the Iowa caucuses. Trump's remarks focused on November.

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TRUMP: So we're going to win the great state of Iowa.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And it's going to be a historic landslide.

MASTERS: Fast-forward to October and polls show a dead heat between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. And Republican Sen. Joni Ernst also faces a tight reelection race. Democrats and Republicans here will tell you Iowa is a swing state despite Trump's runaway victory four years ago.

STEVE PETERSON: Everybody is so far apart. And I think, you know, our president's not helping it. He is pushing division.

MASTERS: That's Steve Peterson. He owns a greenhouse and floral business in the north central rural Iowa town of Lake Mills. It's part of the state that votes reliably Republican. While Trump flags and signs are common along highways that roll through rural Iowa, Peterson says this election feels different.

PETERSON: I would say in the last two weeks to three weeks, you see just more and more Democrat signs going up here and there. And I've actually been getting them and giving them to people as well.

MASTERS: The president's agriculture policies have been a double-edged sword for farm country, says Jennifer Zwagerman. She's director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center. She says federal government payments to farmers have kept them afloat through the president's trade wars and the pandemic.

JENNIFER ZWAGERMAN: But I think there are concerns as we look ahead to what happens when that money disappears because the economy is still very much hurting in the agricultural sector and in the rural sector.

MASTERS: Another challenge for Trump - the pandemic. Iowa remains among the states with the highest rates of new coronavirus infections. And COVID-19 hospitalizations are soaring here. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has not issued a mask mandate and has removed capacity restrictions in bars. She regularly echoes Trump's own talking points.

KIM REYNOLDS: The virus isn't going away until we have a vaccine. And we know we can't shut down, close up.

MASTERS: Earlier this week, Reynolds encouraged Iowans to sign up to attend the Trump rally tonight. The mayor of Des Moines has expressed concern that it could become a super-spreader event. The Trump campaign has pulled its TV ads from Iowa and sees the rally as a way to drum up enthusiasm.

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TERRY BRANSTAD: The only poll that counts is the one taken on Election Day. You've heard me say that before.

MASTERS: That's former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who recently came home after leaving his post as U.S. ambassador to China.

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BRANSTAD: The situation a little different now because so much early voting and all of that. I'm a big believer that you need to finish strong.

MASTERS: As Trump takes the stage tonight, more than 200,000 Iowans have already cast their ballots.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.