The Fallacy of Farm Politics (Bitter Harvest Revisited)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Despite all the attention being paid to the farm bill by political candidates, the coming elections are not likely to be decided by agricultural policy positions.

In the run-up to Election Day, you might think rural voters were looking for someone to blame for Congress’ failure to pass a farm bill.

“I have just one question for Congressman King” Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack asked Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a Republican member of the House Agriculture Committee. “Where is the farm bill?”

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is using a similar line of attack in her closely fought Senate race in North Dakota against Rep. Rick Berg, who is also a member of the Committee.

Even Mitt Romney has been playing the blame game as he campaigns for the White House.

“People have been waiting a long time for a farm bill. The president has to show the leadership to get the House and Senate together,” he told an audience in Iowa after releasing a policy paper expanding on that point. For his part, Obama has called Romney’s vice presidential pick, Rep. Paul Ryan, “one of the leaders in Congress standing in the way” of passing the farm bill.

Is any of this having any effect on rural voters’ attitudes about the candidates and how they will vote next week? Most signs point to no.

While rural families certainly care about the farm bill, not many rural voters will actually base their votes on the farm bill.  This year, economic and fiscal uncertainty is a far more important issue.,

Iowa farmer Mike Holden told Harvest Public Media, “I don’t think the farm bill will end up being an issue in the election.”

If farmers were basing their votes on farm policy and whether they are better off than they were four years ago, they ought to be voting for Democrats. After all, the farm economy under President Obama has exploded: Farm income has increased from $85 billion to $122 billion a year since the President took office.

But, as Iowa Pork Producers Association President Bill Tentinger notes, farmers’ votes reflect their broader political leanings, with the farm population generally favoring Republican candidates.

“They’re fiscally conservative and socially conservative,” he said. “They’re conservative all the way through.”

Despite enjoying record farm income, a recent poll that found that Romney held a 22-point lead over Obama among rural swing-state voters, up eight points from a month ago. Romney’s 59 percent support in the poll – to Obama’s 37 percent – is 7 percent better than Sen. McCain’s performance in rural areas in the 2008 election, and tied with President Bush’s reelection numbers in 2004.

Three cycles of polling and election results confirm Tentinger’s view: Farmers’ conservative cultural and political views are far more important than farm policies when they go to the polls.

This fact is also born out by comparing voter registration data to farm subsidy data.

In swing states like Colorado, farmers are far more likely to be registered Republican and far more likely to give financial support to GOP candidates, according to EWG research. That’s especially true for the largest and most successful farm businesses.

In essence, the more subsidies a farmer receives, the more likely he or she is to be a registered Republican who gives to Republican candidates.

Two years ago, long-standing support for farm bills in Congress was not enough to shield incumbent Democrats from a broader shift towards Republicans, despite extensive efforts in 2008 to shape a farm bill that would supposedly bolster the standing of rural Democrats.

Nevertheless, Democrats continue to shower new subsidies on the largest and most successful farmers – and cut programs to help the hungry and the environment – even though all the evidence suggests that they’re simply financing their opponents’


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