Oh my gosh, I was at work the other night and a coworker was like, “oh, what happened to your old car?” And I was like, “what do you mean? Like, it rained.” And she was like, “don’t you have a brown car?” I was like “no, my car is silver. Oh my gosh, it’s just that dusty!” Totally fair. I need to wash it.–Emily
In this episode we talk about relational organizing with Emily and Nicole, who both grew up in Benton County, and we check in with our not-a-pundit, Darvin Graham, about a recent Iowa Poll.
Søren: Welcome to the podcast.
Emily: Thanks. Happy to be here.
Ruby: Technically, we met in 2008, when I was your fifth grade recess duty teacher. I don’t totally remember you. I don’t know if you even remember me?
Emily: No, I don’t, to be honest.
Ruby: We had to have been on the playground together every other day.
Emily: Yes, that’s probably true.
Ruby: You started doing a lot of work with the people that you know, in terms of how they were going to vote for the election in November, after I started bombarding you with political stuff when I figured out that you were a registered voter, and that you would probably vote for me, which I think you did.
Emily: Yes. I grew up pretty quietly out in the countryside, which I liked a lot—now that I can look back on that. At the time it felt very isolated—because we were so far out—but now looking back I like that a lot actually. You do know everyone. So there’s always people there who kind of have your back and who are there to help you. So yeah, I did like growing up here. There’s a bunch of people that I kind of hadn’t thought about in a couple years because—just our paths hadn’t crossed. And then I run into them now and it’s just funny because I’m like “oh my goodness, how are you?”
Ruby: Because it’s a small community, right, where you know everybody? Or everybody you know knows everybody?
Emily: Yeah, my mom knows everybody.
Ruby: Yes. your mom is super connected. It’s true. Because I think that’s how we really started bonding is, I realized who your mom was—and then I realized who your stepdad was. I was like “oh my gosh, that’s you?” It was just weird.
Emily: Yeah, definitely.
Ruby: You have those moments all the time, at least where we live.
Emily: Oh yeah.
Ruby: I’m assuming people in other rural counties in Iowa have the same experience. I mean, Emily, you live on a farm now.
Emily: Now I do, yeah.
Ruby: Yes. You and Vinny.
Emily: Yeah, my mom grew up on that farm, so she was definitely like “farm life.” We weren’t really because neither of my parents were in farming, but we lived two miles away from my grandparents and my uncles who farmed. We had like some animals on the farm, or at our house, but definitely chickens and—
Before I graduated, I didn’t really care about politics. I just didn’t pay attention at all. And then when I graduated high school, like two days after I graduated, I left to go to California and I worked at a camp there for a summer. That was 2016, so that was Clinton versus Trump. I still hadn’t paid that much attention, even during that election, because honestly I didn’t really think it was going to end up that way. After that summer, I met a lot of people and I learned a lot of things. After that I definitely started noticing more and then obviously once Trump got elected, things were changing pretty quickly and the—just the climate of the way people talked about things changed really quickly. That kind of drew me to start paying attention more. Then as I was in college I definitely became more aware of environmental issues, so that definitely drew me in even more because those things are severely affected by who’s in office. Yeah, so then I definitely have been paying attention ever since.
Ruby: Do you think it was less polarizing then? Than it is now?
Emily: Yes, but I was also biased. I was pretty unaware and young.
Ruby: But still, you could be unaware.
Ruby: People worry. I’m sure Merritt has maybe told you some of the things that—so my high school son—he has gone through. Not like outright trying to criticize him for not necessarily being a Trump supporter. But he has said that if you don’t—before the election, this past election— if you didn’t ascribe to that way of thinking, you really didn’t politically fit in. And you’ve seen we’ve had Confederate flags in our school parking lots. We’ve had Trump flags flying all day in our school parking lot. No Biden flags. I don’t know what would happen if you tried to fly one, but he has always said to me—Merritt—that “I just say nothing because there’s no point.” That viewpoint doesn’t fit in very well, at least not with those that are verbally vocal. That are outright—
Søren: That reminds me, just as a quick aside, that we were going to find out what would happen if you flew a Biden flag, but then there was an insurrection and I decided it would not be a good idea to fly a Biden flag from my truck as I drove around Benton County. It just didn’t seem right.
Ruby: I still think you should try it and let me know what happens.
Søren: Yeah, some time needs to pass. Maybe I can do that to celebrate the [first] 100 days in office.
Ruby: Oh that’s a good idea.
Søren: I wanted to do that for Inauguration Day but it was still too soon. But I digress.
Ruby: So then you weren’t talking about politics constantly at the dinner table or with your friends at lunch—growing up. Are there certain issues you think, though, that really did concern your parents, your stepdad, members of your immediate [family] like your older siblings—even if they wouldn’t say that they were politically active but that concerned them—that had to do with government?
Emily: Yeah, I think that they’ve always been concerned with the economy directly. I can specifically remember them talking about gas prices and how those things are affected, as well as farming. I remember those conversations being discussed around me at family events and things, especially in the farming aspects. But I would zone out so quick.
Ruby: My dad was politically involved, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I think what this points out is that the everyday American, like your parents and a lot of my relatives—they are concerned with those kitchen table issues, with their pocketbook issues. So you don’t necessarily feel like you’re politically involved, but you have a stake in what happens. And I think that’s why relational organizing—which is what we’re going to talk about now—works so well at this level, because they do care about those issues. They need to care about those issues. And then we need to get them to the ballot box, so that they’re educated.
Søren: Right. And as the saying goes, “all politics is local.”
Ruby: It is.
Søren: So there are lots of people who don’t think that they’re politically active, or who aren’t politically active. They’re not interested in politics, but they’re very interested in specific issues that affect them, and they don’t necessarily connect the dots—that that’s political. Because who gets elected, how they then vote on different bills, etc., affects those very things, right?
Ruby: Well, I think a lot of those people don’t want to be politically active for a good reason—both parties are very bad at being down here on this local grassroots level. I’m not saying that the Republicans aren’t winning a lot of elections here—or all of them. I’m just saying most people will tell you that “government doesn’t care about me.” Even if the person they wanted to win is now elected in office, it doesn’t matter because the power imbalance is so poor. So that could go into a whole other conversation of how we need better messengers and we need people with different backgrounds running for office, but we won’t talk about that [now]. We’re going to talk about relational organizing.
Søren: So, Ruby, what is relational organizing?
Ruby: I’m so glad you asked. It is literally what Emily did, without any—we’ve listened now to what her background is—without any real formal political training. Here’s the definition from the NAACP—they’ve been organizing for 110 years, something like that:
Relational organizing “describe[s] something you do all the time: talking to people you know personally and persuading them to take an action on something. We’re much more likely to do something if we’re convinced to do so by a friend or loved one than by a person we don’t know at all. For this reason, we should all be relational organizers.“NAACP, How to be a Relational Organizer
Emily did—and Nicole, who we’re also going to talk to during this podcast—did an excellent job with their family. In the first podcast episode, Søren, you and I talked about how we compared relational organizing to the uptake of cover crops in a community like this, because farmers are not going to do anything if their neighbors not doing it. And if there’s only one farmer doing it, then the rest of the farmers are invariably going to talk.
Søren: I believe you just quoted yourself from episode one.
Ruby: I did, I think I did. They’re going to talk at the local gas station, the local McDonald’s or whatever and be like “what on earth is farmer Emily doing in that field? Why is she planting a bunch of turnips, with her white cat behind her?” Stuff like that. But then that’s what gets people interested. So we need to do that better here, at the grassroots, with our county parties. So Emily, how on earth did you go about then convincing some of your family to vote for me—so I was running as a Democrat—when they, more than likely, did not vote for any other Democrats on the ballot, or if they did it was again because they had some kind of personal connection? I know this wasn’t a one off thing—you spent some time trying to convince family members. Did you even convince them to just vote in general, that probably weren’t going to vote?
Emily: Yeah, so you did most of the work. I pretty much just pointed in the direction.
Ruby: I don’t think so. You did the good work. Let’s put it that way.
Søren: But you also said “this is a candidate that I know personally, right?”
Emily: Yeah, yeah. I have been on opposite political fields of my parents. Or the past four years, as long as I’ve been—five years now?—since I’ve been paying attention, I guess. The conversations used to be more of arguments that would get heated and weren’t very well controlled and didn’t go anywhere, except for bad feelings after. Then they slowly got further into just regular conversations like “well why do you actually think it’s going this way, why do you believe this?” And then us explaining to each other how things are going and then showing each other facts. With my stepdad we send each other articles, especially before the election we were sending each other links to things all the time to help us both be educated on things. I think sometimes it’s just like you get so caught up on what you’re seeing that you don’t necessarily—you’re almost unable to see the other side. So I think those conversations are really important, because it really just helps you to figure out why someone—because especially with this election, it seemed like we were making everyone a villain, if they’re voting one way or the other. I think having those conversations really makes it more personal, makes you be able to see the human side of things. I think that when I was talking about you, it was easy because we talked about all these things prior, about what what their concerns were. You were on the ballot as a Democrat, but obviously your concerns were more about the people here. You understood where people were coming from, especially with agriculture and with being in a small town in rural Iowa, and you made that abundantly clear on your website and then in those flyers that you were handing out. So I just kind of showed them the same things that you were saying and I was just bringing it up to them and slowly working it in. Then as the campaign went on I obviously became more of a fan and got some t-shirts.
Ruby: You did. I love that [photo] of your mom wearing the shirt with your niece or nephew. I can’t remember who she’s with—a little one—and it’s so cute because I thought “oh my gosh, look at how proud Emily’s mom is that she’s going to vote for me.” The other day I was doing laundry and I think I was washing my five year old’s Ruby for Iowa shirt—that black one that your mom has—and I put it in there and I suddenly was like “God, I feel bad I didn’t win for”—because I really wanted to win for people like Emily’s mom who took a chance and voted for me because of the work Emily did. And then I didn’t win and I thought “I hope she still kept the t-shirt.”
Emily: Yeah, she was wearing it two days ago.
Ruby: Oh, that’s awesome! I love that, that your mom….
Søren: How often does a state level candidate get vilified, or made to be a villain? Isn’t that more of a higher level office? So perhaps that’s an advantage, and then maybe the big challenge is not trying to overcome being seen as a villain but just not being known? How many times did, Ruby, you and I talk to people who had no idea who their current representative even was?
Ruby: Oh yeah. Or that they lived in the same town.
Søren: Yeah, exactly, that they literally lived down the street from him.
Ruby: Because they were voting Republican. You managed to get family members to, like we’ve said to many people “you can vote Trump and you can vote for me.” They could still keep that identity. I don’t even know anymore if people know what it means to be a Republican—it’s just that’s what they’ve always been, it’s their family—
Søren: Doesn’t it mean having an R after your name on the ballot?
Ruby: Well, for some people that’s all it means, I swear, because all they’re doing is running for the power and what politics can get them, but—
Søren: I won’t mention names, but it’s a neighboring house district. The winning candidate, who was the Republican said—I can’t even remember where I saw this now—that one of the things that struck him was when he was talking to voters, they would stop him and say, “are you a Republican or a Democrat? Because I’ll only vote for a Republican.” And he realized the value of having that R after his name. And what I didn’t under[stand]—we met the Democratic candidate during the campaign season—what I didn’t realize is that seat had been held by a Democrat for quite a while.
Ruby: Are you talking about up in Buchanan County?
Ruby: They’ve been kind of a progressive district in terms of conservation and environmental issues. But I think what Emily was able to do is she was—they took that Republican identity into the ballot booth, and then also were able to vote for Ruby, which is the only way that this party here, the Iowa Democratic Party in Iowa, is ever going to build it back in rural Iowa. There’s no other way. They have to do it, that small—they might feel like that’s a waste of their energy and their time, but until you can get rural Iowa to come back, even if it’s just for a few candidates—
Søren: The slogan “vote Democrats” is not a winning strategy.
Ruby: It’s not.
Søren: But getting to know you, the candidate, and having someone who knows you then convince family members and friends to vote for you could be.
Ruby: In my opinion, Emily and Nicole weren’t just doing it for this one off. I feel like what Emily said was, she made the connection—you know, that “the issues Ruby is talking about actually are issues that seem to jive with a lot of what you care about.” So your stepdad then wanted to ask me some questions. I think I reached out to him by email then, and he had said to you that that was fine. He sent me some questions, and we talked back and forth a few times. His concerns were because he’s a veteran. They were very much concerns that government elected officials should care about and really were not partisan at all. I think when I was reading his questions, it just struck me how far we have fallen.
This should not be hard. There should just be people in office who sit in library conference rooms like this on a Saturday morning and meet with 10 people from the community. And then they do it again throughout the day. And it’s not a big huge deal because it’s just part of life, that if you want to go talk to your House rep, you are able to do that somewhere in the county pretty easily throughout every month. I think until we get some Democrats—rural Democrats—in office that start doing those things, we’re not going to make any more connections. Like the NAACP said, everybody does it. We all relational organize.
We don’t even know it. But I think we need, like J.D. has said—Scholten—we need more messengers like Emily and Nicole and us—no matter if we decide to run again or not. We need more people that keep doing that work year round in areas like this. That just keep it up, even if there isn’t an election on the horizon, just keep talking to your family members. OK, so J.D. has said that he’s starting—he’s going to announce it this summer—he has this new venture, or whatever, to basically invest—
Søren: Is that the second of his big—
Ruby: I know, he’s got three big announcements, right?
Søren: You tried to get him to say what office he was going to run for in 2022—
Ruby: He didn’t like that. He did kind of act like he might. Okay, so his messenger idea—that as wonderful as it is [that] we bring all these organizers in here. Remember how I was even trying to get you to get an organizer job? Oh my gosh. Last summer I was; I gave her access to that Google Doc that has all the [info]. J.D.’s idea that we need to invest in messengers, on the ground, that are here—and from here, not from some faraway state. It’s people like Emily that need jobs like that, a full time salary with benefits where she becomes—we’ve had a conversation with the Black Hawk County Vice Chair about this—where she becomes a member of the community where people know “Emily’s connected with Democratic Party. That’s why she’s at our city council meeting. That’s why she’s at our county supervisors meeting.” It almost becomes like you are able to build playful banter with the Republicans in positions of power here on the ground because they trust you. Maybe they aren’t going to vote for the people you’re talking about, but you create this dynamic where “Emily is the person and we trust her. So what does she actually have to say?”
Søren: She lives here, in our community.
Ruby: She lives here. She lives on a farm in far western Benton County, and she understands what’s going on. She wasn’t dropped in here right before the election.
Søren: That reminds me, leading up to the [Iowa] caucuses there was a point—obviously we knocked doors in a number of communities around here—when I was knocking doors in my precinct. And one of the things that the organizer had told me to say was “you should tell people that you’re the Kamala captain for this precinct and that you live down the street. This is your precinct.”
Ruby: Did you do it?
Søren: I did that. The number of times that someone’s eyes just kind of lit up and [they] said “oh wow, this is one of my neighbors” and not someone who’s been air dropped in from who knows where. That seemed to make a difference, at least in terms of being receptive to a message.
Ruby: I think it does. Look at all the work that the NAACP has done for 110-some years. They couldn’t have gotten any of that done without people knowing their community and their community members. I mean, the groundswell in the civil rights movement is what moved, eventually, the needle that white people controlled. Somebody has to start moving that needle like you did with your family. How many people do you think voted for me, that maybe wouldn’t have, that you’re related to? Was it more than your mom and stepdad?
Emily: I know at least four people that I directly talked to voted for you. One of them wasn’t going to vote at all because he didn’t want to vote for president, but I was like “okay, well you don’t have to. You should care about local candidates, because those are the ones who are going to affect you the most. Then I shared different resources to look at those, what the websites that have information on your candidates, because I personally struggled to find that information for a long time, especially like two years ago when it was just our locals and not obviously the presidential—which a lot of people don’t even know it’s time to vote, which is education, it’s just a whole different story. Yeah, but I know that that one, they did end up voting and did vote for you. Then I know I got my sister, my parents. I don’t know if my sister voted for a presidential, but—
Ruby: But you think if she voted, she checked our box?
Emily: Yeah, I think she told me she did.
Ruby: That’s awesome. Seriously, Emily, that’s amazing. I can’t thank you enough for that. It means so much. I’m not kidding. I see that picture of your mom and my shirt in my head any time I see those shirts now.
Søren: We’re not asking for 100 votes or 1000 votes—or 100 people or 1000 people. It’s four people at a time—or one at a time.
Ruby: I think even after an election where everybody that you vote for doesn’t win—or maybe your state like those of us who voted for Biden here, while our votes contributed to the popular vote count but didn’t contribute to getting him elected necessarily—I still think you own those votes. I think people really need to remember that for both reasons. If you voted for Kim Reynolds—she’s done a lot of bad stuff, and you’ve got to own that. Then next time, you can still be a Republican, but you’ve got to do better when you go into the ballot box. Then I think it’s also, if you voted for me, and we didn’t win, you still own that vote. You voted for somebody that was really going to invest in your community. Talk to people and make sure that the next time you try to find those same votes, even if it’s not Ruby [running]. Like you said, you need to listen to family members who are trying to talk to you. You don’t have to shove it down their throat—which it sounds like you didn’t, that you were trying. You were very strategic in what you were doing and just slowly sending them information and building that relationship.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean you’re thanking me—which thanks—but they’re educated people so they wouldn’t have voted for you if they didn’t believe in what you were saying and trying to do.
Søren: Right, but it was getting them to open up to consider someone versus just going in to the ballot box—or the voting booth rather—and marking whoever’s name had an R after it, right?
Ruby: And they were still Republicans. I think that’s what people really have got to start recognizing, is that you can still be a Republican and split your tickets. Because that’s what Iowa used to be.
Søren: Can I call you out? You’ve admitted this before: you said you’ve voted for Grassley before.
Ruby: Yes, I voted for him twice. And I got vilified on Twitter.
Søren: But you’re still a Democrat.
Ruby: I am still Democrat, and I still walk into that ballot booth and I’m a Democrat. But sometimes I vote for Republicans, yes.
Søren: Years ago I voted for Jim Leach, who was a very moderate Republican and—
Ruby: A lot of people actually think he was a Democrat. They are confused.
Søren: Yeah, that is interesting.
Ruby: And see, again, this is why when you go into the ballot box you can keep that identity that you grew up with, which a lot of people—they registered at 18 as a Republican and they’re going to be a Republican. And they’re fiscally conservative and that’s who I am and you’re not going to cancel me. I have never ever wanted to cancel Republicans. I just want there not to be a trifecta in this state anymore and some purple to start coming back.
If you could tell people who want to talk to their family members now, or between now and the next election, and get them to vote for specific candidates that maybe go against their identity or who they are, what would you tell them, those people that need help trying to convince—
Emily: I think, just doing the little things, taking it step by step, talking about things as they happen. Yeah, just doing my own research I thought helped so that I could back things. When I talked to you about all the things that you felt strongly about and then I talked to my parents about what they felt strongly about and I compared those notes. There were questions so then I even had you and my stepdad talk to each other directly so that you could word them even better than I could, obviously.
Ruby: I remember you texted me though sometimes like “I need you to tell me what you think about this.” It’d be something very specific, or “what what do you know about this?” I knew that’s what you were doing and I thought “Emily is so kick ass.” Seriously, I think I told you so many times I wish we could hire you—and pay you—to be part of our campaign. We didn’t have any paid staff, by the way, but Emily would have been a good paid staff. That is for sure.
Søren: Yeah, for sure.
Emily: I think those were the things that I found were important to people, like the really small stuff that I might not—they might not be the top of my list—but they were on the top of someone else’s list that I was having that conversation with. So figuring out—I mean, that’s marketing—what their problem is to try to solve it, so I mean I think you can apply that when having those conversations with people.
Ruby: Part of your degree is marketing, isn’t it?
Emily: Business and communication.
Ruby: See, J.D. is right about VAN being a disaster. We need to bring in more consumer data. I don’t know if you know this—and we can end on this—but that your stepdad, one of the things he was really concerned about was your health insurance debacle. That whole mess.
Emily: I don’t have insurance.
Ruby: I know. Yeah, you are his child. He is a service member, a retired service member. That was an issue that really affected him deeply as a father or stepfather. I remember thinking as we were communicating, “he’s just a person, and he just wants to help his kid.” This is what politics should be. At its heart, it should be you need to help people, because they don’t have any other connection to their government, other than their elected officials are supposed to be that path to making things better.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. As a vet, that’s something he’s proud of; he served his time. And now the government’s supposed to be helping him out, because he did his work for 20 years. I’ve been taken off of their health insurance because I turned 22. And then theirs is being affected this year. It’s changing, and they have to pay now a premium for them to have health insurance even though he served 20 years. I don’t really think that that’s fair. That is a problem, obviously, that he needed to address. That’s such a big thing for him, but I hadn’t even considered that either. So that’s one of those things he just had to figure out.
Ruby: Yes, because it was a weird loophole. I fell down a rabbit hole on the Veterans Administration page trying to figure out what was he talking about so that I could have a conversation with him. But I thought “this is total crap. I can’t believe no one has fixed this problem. This concerns a man who lives in a small town in rural Iowa, and there’s nobody talking about it.” Except us.
Emily: I feel like that’s what set you apart from the other candidates is that you did that research, you had that conversation, figured that out. And then you tried to figure out the best way to go about solving it—or what you would do if you became elected. That was one of the big things I was telling them is that you do care, you are a part of this community. You have kids. You are very invested in the community. I think that was one of the main things that really helped them to see that it’s not Republican versus Democrat. It’s the people who are going to make a difference and care for you when it comes down to the election.
Søren: Thank you so much, Emily, for joining us on this episode.
Emily: Thank you so much for having me. It’s always fun talking with you, too.
Ruby: Yeah, I always love seeing you, Emily. Next time bring Vinny, okay?
Ruby: Thank you for joining us, Nicole, today. You grew up in Atkins, which is a town kind of on the edge of the eastern side of Benton County.
Nicole: Yeah, it’s not far at all. I think it’s what a 15 minute drive to Cedar Rapids.
Ruby: It’s close, which is why Atkins—right now, the growth is exploding. I read this week in the Benton County Supervisors minutes that they have requested—so right now they don’t have a police force. Like most of the rural towns in Benton County, they use the sheriff as their police, as their law enforcement coverage. I don’t know how many hours they have right now. They’re contracted for under 20 and they want 40 hours a week. So they want basically a deputy hired for Atkins because the growth is exploding so much in that community. There are over 2000 people now. When you lived there and grew up there, can you tell us what it was like? What the community was like when you grew up?
Nicole: It was really small when I was under 10 years old. They hadn’t done all the developments that they have now. It was just regular small town Iowa. Then they started expanding—the east side was where they started. Now they’ve expanded on all sides, really. It’s become a decent sized town. I think it’s really cool that people have decided to move out there.
Ruby: It’s exciting, I agree with Nicole, to have a community in a rural, smaller county—we only have like 20 to 25,000 residents—start to grow like that. It’s because of housing. That’s what I’ve read, that Atkins is the one community [in Benton County] where they are not landlocked like Shellsburg kind of is right now—they can’t seem to get any of the ag land around them developed. Belle Plaine is kind of having the same problem. That Atkins is able to expand out right now, in terms of housing—and everybody knows that housing is a mess, just period.
Growing up, your family—how politically aware, from your viewpoint, were they? How politically aware were you? And then bring us to today—how politically aware and active your family that’s still in Atkins are. And I guess if you want to tell us how they fall on the political spectrum.
Nicole: I would say, growing up, my parents were not super into politics. I remember them talking about Clinton, and then I was in fourth grade when 9/11 happened. So that was kind of my intro to politics. But my parents have just always been all over the political spectrum. They’ve voted for super right-wing Republicans, they’ve voted for pretty progressive Democrats, and everywhere in between. I think they’ve even voted for some Libertarians and stuff like that.
Ruby: I feel like the word progressive really doesn’t belong to the Democratic Party. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
Nicole: It does not at all.
Ruby: Right? I feel like progressivism—especially in rural counties, rural districts—if we were playing it right, we should not have a problem drawing people from both parties, all spectrums. I think the party leadership of the Iowa Democratic Party has forgotten that truth. I really do. There’s a reason we were able to elect Harkin so many times alongside Grassley, and people felt like it was a good balance. I don’t know. We’re not discussing what Grassley has become today, but I’m just saying it was a great.
Søren: It was a good balance.
Ruby: It was a good balance. So many times that we’ve talked to J.D., I feel like that was a big part of his campaign, that progressivism is a different form of politics. It’s part of our past, but it’s something that the Democratic Party forgot. He was trying to remind voters that “I’m not necessarily a Democrat.”
Nicole: I’ve never thought of just voting for a Democrat because they’re a Democrat. My parents always taught me to vote for the issues that matter to me. My dad’s been in a union my whole life, and so that’s something that’s very important to me: where do candidates fall on unionization and workers rights and stuff like that? My parents taught me that it doesn’t matter what party a person’s in. What matters is what they actually stand for.
Ruby: Have they ever been registered with one of the two main parties? Are they independents?
Nicole: I’m sure they’ve probably been registered to both parties at different times in their lives. I used to be registered as a Libertarian. I think today I’m registered as a Democrat still, but ideally I would be registered as an independent most of the time.
Ruby: During the 2016 election, Hillary and Trump—Hillary Clinton, I should say, and Donald J. Trump—how did your parents fall then? Do you know, how did they fall?
Nicole: I know that my dad voted for Trump. I know that. I have a feeling my mom just didn’t vote. They have always had a distaste for the Clintons, so I’m guessing that she just didn’t vote. But yeah, my dad voted for Donald Trump in 2016. He did not vote for him in 2020. I know that.
Ruby: So both of your parents, are they fairly reliable voters? Would you consider them that, during the presidential elections anyway?
Nicole: Yeah, they always vote for president. They don’t always vote for everything else that’s on the ticket in a presidential election year. So that’s an opportunity because they don’t understand how to research all these other candidates they’ve never heard of. You kind of have to talk to them about, how does Ruby compare to the presidential nominee? If you’re going to vote for Biden, would you also want to vote for Ruby, or vice versa?
Søren: Tell us how that conversation went—when you asked them about voting for Ruby, or what they were thinking in terms of the Iowa House race.
Nicole: It was a series of conversations, over probably a few months, because I just didn’t know where my parents were at the time. I didn’t know at the time whether my dad was going to vote for Trump again. I wanted to keep it civil, so I just kind of asked them “do you know anything about Gerhold? Has he done anything for you as your representative? They basically—”
Søren: Do you know he lives in your same town?
Nicole: Right, they basically had no idea who he was or what he had done—or anything.
Ruby: So they didn’t know that he lived there, in Atkins?
Nicole: I don’t think so, no.
Ruby: Do your parents live in the city limits?
Nicole: Yeah, they live right in the center of town in one of the older houses.
Søren: Nicole, you were saying that it was a series of conversations because you were trying to gauge where your parents were thinking, what they knew about things. When did things kind of click for them in terms of the race and voting for Ruby versus her opponent?
Nicole: A lot of the conversation happened with just my mom. And a lot of this was just via text too, by the way, so that kind of made it easier in a way. For her it was just “why am I gonna vote at all? Because none of these people have done anything for us” basically was her thought, and that’s been her thought for a long time, at every level—state, local, federal. “Just what have these politicians done for us?” I get that. It’s totally valid. I feel the same way about a lot of politicians that have been in office forever. I just told her a lot about Ruby’s positions. Why would you not take a chance on this person that has legitimate ideas of how to make your town better, your county better, your area better?
Søren: Was that a fairly easy conversation? Because earlier you said that unionization and workers rights were important issues for your family. So was that an easy conversation to convince your parents to vote for Ruby?
Nicole: I think it was fairly easy, just because they didn’t have—like I said they didn’t know who Gerhold was. So it’s not like I had to disprove someone else’s reputation that was just “this is how things are for you today. This is who is in office today. Why wouldn’t you give this other person a shot at making it better?” So it was pretty easy to get them to see that. The biggest challenge was just getting them to make sure they filled in that bubble on the ballot. Otherwise it would have just been blank.
Søren: Exactly. That’s something that we noticed in a number of different—well, basically, I think all of the precincts. There was definitely a drop off in the number of votes from president down to the House race. Do you have any sense—if you hadn’t had these conversations with your parents—do you have any sense whether they might have voted for this particular race or, if so, how they might have voted?
Nicole: I think they just wouldn’t have voted for this race. I think there’s a lot of things on the ballot that they probably just—and maybe they didn’t vote for anyone—because I didn’t tell them to vote for Theresa Greenfield or whoever else was on the ballot at the time, so they might have left a lot of things blank.
Ruby: That happened with a lot of people. I don’t think that—okay, and I feel poorly saying this—but I don’t think I realized how many people just voted top of the ticket and left the rest of it blank. Honestly. I always felt like if I leave anything blank it’s possible my ballot will be rejected. I don’t want my ballot to get kicked out for whatever reason. So even though those judges, you know on the back page—I’m always like “oh I gotta fill out all the judges.” I always just want to get to the end of it, make sure everything’s filled in. What do you think, Nicole, needs to be done better in rural areas, especially in terms of organizing? And based off of the experiences you’ve had with your family and your parents, just to get them to know who is even on their ballots?
Nicole: We need to have a party that cares. I know you’ve talked about this a lot. It’s just the party is based in Des Moines, and they’ve got offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City and whatever, and that’s it. They stop in these rural communities when they need a vote. Other than that, you can’t find them. And I mean, talking about people not knowing that Gerhold lives there. What is he doing throughout the year? Why doesn’t he do a town hall? Why doesn’t he do anything?
Søren: Nicole, do you have any final thoughts for us?
Nicole: What Ruby did when she ran was amazing. I feel like you did bring a lot of different people to the table, you listened to a lot of different people. Obviously not everyone agreed with every idea that you have but you listened to Republicans and Democrats about their worries and you tried to fix things. I hope that people respect that and people use your campaign as a model for how it should be done, because you didn’t act like a typical Democrat and just wander around the county not actually listening to people.
Ruby: Look at the things that people like Nicole and Emily were doing. You know there are people doing this all over—thousands and thousands of Iowans trying their best, under very difficult circumstances, to get a Democrat elected because we live in a trifecta. There should not ever just be one party rule.
Søren: Or not just a Democrat, but someone who actually cares.
Ruby: Yes. They were trying to turn the conversation, slightly. We’re not saying we’re trying to turn this car completely around, but just take a side road every once in a while.
Søren: Don’t make me turn this car and go home!
Ruby: The GOP here in Iowa does not listen to anyone. Their talking points are generated not by—more often than not—not by Iowans, by people that live here. That’s not right. I really hope that in 2022, rural parties in particular have received some kind of investment from Des Moines, from the state party, so that people like Nicole and Emily—and Darvin—feel like all the work they did wasn’t for naught and that we’re building on that work they did. Like Ivy Schuster, the Senate candidate here we ran alongside—State Senate candidate—said recently, this needs to be a 10 year plan, or more. But until you start that plan, there’s no plan. There’s nothing. It still feels like that.
Søren: It does.
Ruby: It absolutely feels like everything got flatlined and we’re still laying here on the ground. Thank you, Nicole.
Nicole: You’re welcome, Ruby.
Ruby: It was good to talk to you again.
Ruby: We’re going to talk to Darvin, our not-a-pundit pundit, today about a poll that was published March 16th. It was a Selzer poll. The Des Moines Register headline for the poll said “Governor Kim Reynolds’ job approval slides; majority wishes she would decide not to seek reelection.” The biggest headline out of this poll was that 52% of Iowans say they hope Reynolds decides not to seek a second full term as governor. But then the statistic that we zeroed in on, that’s buried further in the polling, is that despite the fact that 52% of Iowans would like Reynolds to not run—and I would count myself in that 52%, as I think all three of us would—Reynolds gets her highest approval ratings from a variety of populations, including those 45 and older (53%), Protestants (53%), men (56%), Catholics (57%). And then this I think is the important one: those who live in rural areas (69%). Darvin, what are your thoughts on the word salad that I just spewed at you?
Darvin: Thanks, you guys, for having me back again. It’s good to be with you.
Søren: Welcome back.
Darvin: I really think that it’s interesting to kind of take a snapshot of some thoughts of Iowans at this point in the year. I don’t really personally think it has a lot of bearing on what we’re going to see in 2022. I think it indicates that the Republican Party and the conservative viewpoint, as a monolith—which it isn’t, entirely—but those beliefs, I think, are very strong in rural areas. When we’re looking at 2022—which is kind of the big question—what is this going to change? What results are we going to see from this bit of information? I really don’t see it having that drastic of an impact. I think there was a pretty wide showing for the Republican Party in 2020, and I really don’t see much reason for that to be slowing down or really stopping. Maybe slowing down a little bit, just depending how the rest of the pandemic kind of happens, but I think, for right now, the state is pretty solidly red.
Ruby: When we were prepping for this segment, you quoted stats from how Hubbell did against Reynolds in 2018 and then you also quoted Clinton and Trump split in Iowa and then Trump and Biden split four years later. Could you say that again? That was enlightening.
Darvin: I think your question at that time was do we think we’re going to see the same kind of turnout as we saw in 2020, which was a record amount. I don’t think we will. We don’t have a presidential election coming up in 2022. We don’t have a Trump name on the ballot, so I think that kind of firebrand is not going to—I think that’s going to have less voters coming out. But I don’t think that means that’s enough of a decline to really shift the results, because if you look in 2020, Trump’s margin of victory in the state of Iowa over President Biden is around 8%. In 2016 when Trump ran against Clinton, the margin of victory there was 9.5%, so pretty close to the same. A little bit more, I think probably because he was running against a woman in 2016 and he was running against Biden in 2020. But if you look at the number—if you look at Reynolds’ margin against Hubbell in 2018, it’s around 3%. So I think what we’re going to see is the margin dip down because the overall turnout is probably going to be much less than what we saw in 2020 here. In 2022, I think it’ll drop down to around that same 3%, but I can even see it being higher in favor of the GOP. I think you can see a 5% margin of victory. I think that’s very possible.
Ruby: Do you think that the selection—whoever comes out of the Democratic primary for gubernatorial candidate—does it matter who wins? Does it matter? Is there a path to victory based on the person, as opposed to the party? Do you know what I’m saying? I hope that makes sense.
Darvin: Well, I think it absolutely matters. That’s an opportunity, whether that candidate wins or loses, that’s a platform one way or the other. So when you’re thinking of a whole political career, that could be a launching point for something 5-10 years down the road that we’re not really tracking at this point so, yes, I think it matters who becomes that nominee. At the same time, I don’t think there is the kind of political will and the kind of population that we would need to really see a flip in 2022. You think about Wisconsin being a rural and an urban state in a lot of ways. We’re not Wisconsin—we don’t have a Milwaukee, we don’t have a Madison—with that kind of volume of urban voters. We have a lot of rural spaces and a lot of rural counties, and a lot of rural voters. I think that those trends that we’ve been seeing in rural Iowa are going to continue.
Ruby: Søren, you just did the math. So if 52% of Iowans don’t want Kim Reynolds to run again, how many of those people possibly live in Polk County and Des Moines as compared to the rural areas?
Søren: Two numbers that I did look up here. You talked about Reynolds having a lot of support in rural areas (69%), but if 52% of voters across the state don’t want her to run again, the theme we were looking at was, well, do all of those 52% live in Des Moines? Just Polk County has a population of about 490,000—so just shy of half a million—which is over 15% of the entire state’s population, and the Des Moines metro area is almost 700,000, which is 22% of the state’s population. So that could certainly skew things.
Darvin: I think really one thing to consider here, too, is that maybe there’s 52% of voters—even if they are not all in Polk County or are not all in Linn or Johnson counties—those folks might not prefer her to run again, but they would definitely much less prefer voting for a Democrat.
Søren: Exactly. That’s the thing. When you were talking before, that’s the thing that I was thinking of: just because 52% of people don’t want her to run doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for the Dem who supposedly will run against her.
Darvin: I think gender is playing a role in that as well, too. I think you saw it in the disparity between the margin of victory between Trump and between Ernst over Greenfield. Ernst got less of a margin but still won. I think that has a lot to do with gender, and I think some of that is no doubt playing out in the governor’s position as well.
Søren: Notwithstanding the fact that this is still early—we’re what, a year and a half or so away from the 2022 election. And notwithstanding the fact that polls change over time, sometimes dramatically, is it safe to say that you were perhaps suggesting that the Iowa Democratic Party might stumble with these poll results just like it seemed to do with this past presidential election results? And, in particular, like you mentioned Greenfield and Ernst in that election—IDP talked pretty strongly about how well they were going to do and they just flopped. Do you perhaps see the same thing happening again?
Ruby: That poll that came out two weeks before the election. People lost their s— and didn’t believe it, that Abby was going to lose. And look, it’s the same pollster. It’s Ann Selzer.
Søren: Right, but IDP prior to that was looking at other polls that leaned more Democratic. I was surprised by the Selzer poll, but it was spot on.
Darvin: Yeah, it was. I choose to believe J. Ann Selzer when she puts out a poll. I think she’s got a pretty good track record and does things pretty scientifically. But I think the context is so wildly different right now with where we are at in this next political cycle. If we’re talking about the Iowa Democratic Party, I think they need to first look at their most recent election and what that is telling them, rather than look at a poll a year and a half out from the next election. Not that I’d seen them doing that. I don’t see a lot of ink being spilled or hand wringing going on about this particular poll. I think there’s a little bit of newsmaking going on from the Des Moines Register. You kind of look at how they’ve released the results, it’s like their—and we love the Des Moines Register—but you see their organization kind of rolling out the results not as one big “here’s what we found out in the poll” but “here’s 10 stories, piece by piece, of every little bit of”—so there’s a little bit of that going on too, I think.
Søren: The poll also talked about how the Republican leadership in the legislature seemed to be out of touch with what Iowa voters want, so maybe we should talk a little bit about that as well.
Ruby: The only thing that I would say, being on the ground here and talking—I do talk to a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life every day. I think this is something that our party has got to figure out how to tap into. As long as people have a job, especially in rural Iowa—as long as they have a job and they can they can feed their kids each day, then go home and go to bed—and not necessarily losing their house—they’re going to keep voting the way they’ve traditionally been voting, which for a lot of them is Republican. So as much as it sucks that they maybe don’t like the things that are happening in the legislature—and I know by and large these are white people. If you’re not—and no one wants anyone to lose their job; I don’t want people to lose their jobs—but if you were not taking that hit directly, you’re going to keep that status quo. I don’t know if that’s an Iowa way of thinking, but you bust the status quo and you might lose your job. I really think a lot of people think that. You can shove a lot of this under the rug, which a lot of people do, sadly. People who say they’re unhappy with what’s happening in the state legislature—a lot of those people then turned around and voted for Gerhold, as opposed to me. They did.
I was looking the other day at our campaign literature, and the things that we were supposedly—which we were—standing for and I thought, these are great things. But we never once said if you have a job, we’re going to make sure you keep that job. To a lot of people, that’s what matters the most—that they don’t have their entire lives upended and lose their job and have to go on welfare and figure out how to get health insurance for their kids and I don’t know. It is such a complicated mess in rural Iowa because we’re at the mercy of corporations. But those corporations—the strings are pulled by the Republican Party, but we can’t get people to see it because they’re afraid. I get that. I don’t want to lose my job. I get that. I don’t want to be left out there on the edge, no job. What happens to you when you have no job? Bad things.
Darvin: I think you’re right on when it comes down to just being able to survive, being able to pass down things to the next generation, and not have worry or concern about being able to survive at that level. I think you’re right on, Ruby, with that.