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Caucus Season in Iowa: Time to Debunk Some Stereotypes

Clay Masters

Every four years, politicians and the reporters who cover them spend months in Iowa wooing voters ahead of the February caucuses. There's inevitably lots of photo ops with grain silos and corn fields in the background, not to mention interviews with weathered farmers who are supposed to stand in for the state's two million registered voters.

Iowans will do plenty of eye-rolling this campaign, but many have developed a sense of humor about those stereotypes. Mike Draper, owner of RAYGUN in Des Moines, has turned cliches about his home state into a booming business, poking fun at the people who make them. At his store, there's a whole section for national media, filled with T-shirts that say things like, "Is there a bale of hay I can interview you next to?"

How campaigns act about — and in — Iowa could matter, according to pollster J. Ann Selzer. If they buy into the stereotypes about Iowa and agriculture, she says, they'll attract a totally different set of voters on caucus night. But if they broaden their scope "and understand that Des Moines is the third-largest insurance capital on the planet, very white collar, lots of people doing lots of different things, there's a whole other world besides ag in Iowa."

Here's what Iowans want you to know about the state:

1. It's not all corn fields

The Iowa of many people's mind may be the dour farmers in the iconic painting,American Gothic, or the corn fields of Field of Dreams. But most Iowans don't live off the land. Just 7 percent of the state's population works in agriculture, said David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University. Two-thirds of Iowans live in cities and suburbs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

2. It's having a diversity boom

Half of the state's population growth over the past 25 years has come from Latinos and immigrants. Iowa's Latino population increased five-fold between 1990 and 2010 to 150,000. The state's African-American and Asian populations have also exploded, according to Census data analyzed by Mark Grey, the Director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration at the University of Northern Iowa.

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
Farmer Dennis Friest stands beside some of the wind turbines on his farm near Garden City, IA.

3. One of Iowa's fastest-growing cash crops these days is wind

The state's prairies aren't just ideal for growing corn and soybeans. They're also perfect for harvesting wind power. Iowa is covered with more than 3,000 giant wind turbines and has the third largest installed-wind-energy capacity of all states, behind Texas and California, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The turbines generate a third of the state's energy — a number which is set to rise as a more major wind projects go online in the coming years.

4. It's a hub for the insurance industry

Visitors to Des Moines sometimes tell Mike Draper, "It's bigger than I thought. You got buildings here?" Draper chuckles, "Yeah, we've got buildings here," including skyscrapers. Thank the insurance industry for some of that glossy sheen. The city is a major hub for the industry and home to 29 life insurers, thanks to a friendly regulatory climate, as reported by Bloomberg News.

Blake Rupe, owner and founder of Re-APP, Inc. at work at Vault Coworking & Collaboration Space in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Credit Clay Masters / IPR

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5. There's a thriving tech scene

Both Google and Facebook have large data centers in Iowa, and the state is home to a growing start-up scene. Blake Rupe, a 27-year-old who founded a smartphone app that tracks recycling habits, says she chose to stay in Iowa because of the community, and "the cost of living here makes it so much easier to own a business."

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.