Changing Presidential Campaign Approach On Display In Ankeny

Jul 11, 2016

  Presidential hopefuls barnstorm Iowa for months or even years in the run up to the state's first in the nation contest. Many hit all of its 99 counties, but the general election is all about the state's half dozen electoral votes. That means the campaigns treat it differently.

An efficient way to get voters is to target places like Ankeny, Iowa. New census data shows this small farm town turned bustling Des Moines suburb is the third-fastest growing city in the country. Gary Lorenz is its mayor. He says growth is more than just building roads.

“The more people you get in - into a community, the more opinions,” Lorenz says. “The more diverse opinion you've got.

Rachel Sinclair lives in this town of more than 54,000 people that's seen its population grow 20 percent in the last five years. She's 40 years old, divorced and has two kids, and she's a small business consultant. Sinclair is a busy person who, despite all the attention paid to Iowa, does not have time to really engage politically.

“Well, I've watched every debate this year and really tried to be informed. All I can do is control the environment around me. I put my focus more on what can I do to make a difference within the circles of people I interact with,” Sinclair says. “Whether that's connecting someone who is interested in a new career with someone else I know who is interested in hiring someone. That, to me, is what I can control.”

Sinclair is the Iowa voter campaigns are targeting David Peterson is a political science professor at Iowa State University. He says in a general election, candidates are trying to reach voters who might be on the fence, and they're going to go where the people are.

“There are definitely more people in a place like Ankeny,” Peterson says. “The demographics of the town are probably also such that it's a little bit more of a moderate town, where these voters they need to persuade are and they can reach them a little better.”

And even though Rachel Sinclair seems to have settled on a candidate, she sounds like she could be persuaded.

“I mean, at this point, I think I'll know, but I just don't know if I want to say it out loud,” Sinclair says.

The campaigns are not targeting Rachel's parents in Pomeroy. It's a rural town in the state's northwest, the kind of place you think about when you think Iowa. Rachel's dad Dennis Ehn drives the streets where he and his wife Marcia still live. They're both in their 60s. Dennis points out a large school building.

“This is the school that I went to, the kids all went to,” Ehn says.

Now it's vacant. For all the data that shows growth in urban and suburban Iowa, rural populations in the state are fading. And unlike in Ankeny, any development that comes to Pomeroy is something the town has to do for itself, like a park with a playground, a community shelter, a vet's memorial...

“And a lot of that gets done through grants because a small town like this only has so much money,” Ehn says.

When the town's only restaurant closed, 69 residents got together to open a new one. And that spirit carries over to politics. In contrast to his daughter, Dennis is happy to dive in.

“I'd rather sit and argue politics with somebody that has a different view than myself,” Ehn says. “I like to hear the other side.”

That said, Dennis' wife, Marcia, who's the town's librarian, says this election has been especially hard to watch.

“You live every day to change your little world and every little child that comes into my library and every 80-year-old lady, you know - it's - we can make our differences here,” Marcia Ehn says. “But then you just sit back and watch it, and I think people in other countries, what do they think of us? It's like a circus.”

Daughter Rachel Sinclair has one idea for the presidency, maybe from some of her small town Iowa upbringing.

“I think we should elect a Democrat and a Republican and force them to work together,” Sinclair says.

And in Iowa, she's the one the candidates want to reach on their second more targeted trip to the state.