updated 7/16/2008 5:13:36 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:13:36

As Americans were surging westward in the 1840s, Iowa was filling up with Yankee farmers and German immigrants, watching as wagon trains headed to the Oregon Trail and the Mormon thousands mustered by Brigham Young headed from the Mississippi across the rolling hills to Council Bluffs on the Missouri and then west. Iowa was a young state then, proud of its hundreds of schools and dozens of colleges, sending more than its share of young men back east to fight for the cause of the Union. After that war Iowans built a solid civilization based on farming, farm-machine manufacturing and meat processing that resisted the blandishments of William Jennings Bryan’s populism and cheap money, and Iowa became one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation.

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But starting around 1900, Iowa grew old. “If you build it, they will come” was the theme from the movie Field of Dreams, set in Iowa, and in the 19th century, Iowans built a model society. Yet for most of the 20th century very few people came. Iowa’s commercial and financial center remained in the railroad hub of Chicago, its economy failed to diversify and develop the dense manufacturing base of the Great Lakes states, and its young people started to move east or west to make their fortunes. Iowa’s population, up from 674,000 in 1860 to 2.2 million in 1900, increased only slowly, and has not reached 3 million to this day: In 1900, Iowa had 11 congressional districts and California 7; now Iowa has 5 and California 53, and Iowa is expected to lose 1 and California gain 1 after the 2010 Census. Iowa’s solid Capitol—a memorial to its Civil War dead—and its courthouses, its sturdy but mostly old housing stock, give testimony to Iowa’s strengths but also suggest a lack of dynamism. Even its great economic achievement—the development of high-tech, ever more productive, but also less labor-intensive agriculture—has made this a state that did not grow much. Iowa is number one in pork, number one in corn, and number one in soybeans, but it has been down near the bottom in population growth.

Iowa suffered especially in the 1980s. The number of Iowans whose principal occupation was farming dropped from 86,000 in 1982 to 56,000 in 1997, and the state’s population dropped by 4.7% between 1980 and 1990—down to the 1960 level. In the 1990s its high level of literacy and good work habits have produced white-collar and high-tech growth in and around its pleasant small cities, especially in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, even as many old factories closed, and it grew by 5.4% in the 1990s—the biggest population increase since the 1910s. But the recession of 2001 hit hard, and Iowa lost 10,000 jobs, and growth slowed. Young Iowans with good educations left the state; Governor Tom Vilsack took to hosting parties for Iowa natives in New York City and Chicago where he urged them to come back home. The outflow was offset a bit by Mexican and other immigrants, who moved to small towns like Denison as well as to Des Moines and the old industrial cities of Sioux City and Waterloo. But over-65 population is expected to increase 47% over the next 20 years, while the number of children is projected to fall. Ethanol has boosted the Iowa economy, since Senator Charles Grassley in 1998 got the ethanol tax credit extended to 2007, and by then Iowa was producing 30% of the nation’s ethanol. That has pushed corn prices above $3 a bushel and increased the value of farmland, and soybean prices have been helped by Iowa’s biofuel plants; cattle producers are using the distiller fuel produced by ethanol production as a nutritious feed. But ethanol plants are capital-intensive and produce relatively few jobs, while some factory jobs are disappearing; Iowa’s Maytag was purchased by Whirlpool, which announced it was moving its Newton headquarters and factory to Ohio.

For much of the 20th century Iowa was been a culturally and politically countercyclical state, headed in just the opposite direction of the rest of the nation—determinedly, with confidence in its own chipper rectitude, unembarrassedly out of step. In the industrial New Deal era, it stayed mostly agricultural and Republican, even as Davenport and Des Moines radio announcer Ronald Reagan became an enthusiastic Roosevelt Democrat and headed to Hollywood. Iowa partook little of postwar economic growth. It was dovish during the Vietnam War and after. In the 1980s, as Reagan, by then a conservative Republican, became president, Iowa’s economy was hit hard and self-pity became the dominant note of Iowa’s politics, as voters sought protection from the vagaries of the market even as commercial real estate and stock prices boomed elsewhere. In the 1988 caucuses Iowa Republicans voted against Reagan’s vice president, George Bush, and Iowa Democrats voted for the populist Dick Gephardt. In the fall it gave Michael Dukakis his second highest percentage of any state.

Since then, Iowa and the nation have converged politically. If its economic rebellion against America’s move toward free markets failed in the 1980s, its cultural qualms about America’s move away from traditional values may have set an example for the rest of the country in the 1990s. It voted twice for Bill Clinton and went for Al Gore by 4,144 votes in 2000 and for George W. Bush by 10,059 in 2004. It has reelected both its Republican and its Democratic senator. After 30 years of Republican governors, it elected Democrats three times starting in 1998. Republicans held majorities in the legislature, until 2004 in the state Senate and 2006 in the state House. Collectively these results indicate a sort of steady moderation, a desire to accept the verdict of the markets and to honor traditional values with some hedging on both counts. Iowa remains quirky in some respects. It is still probably one of the most dovish, isolationist-prone states, though very much aware of its role as an international exporter: Its delegation voted for NAFTA in 1993 and normal trade relations with China in 1999 (Mexicans eat lots of corn and Chinese lots of pork). It is thrift-minded, seeing a balanced budget more as a badge of moral rectitude than as a prudent economic policy. It pioneered legal riverboat gambling in 1989, but also has a large anti-abortion movement. And it has its own traditional gatherings, which are often of political significance. One is the Iowa State Fair held every August on the east side of Des Moines, complete with the traditional 600-pound butter cow. Another is RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, held every year in late summer since 1973. And then there are the Iowa precinct caucuses held on a cold night in January in presidential years, the first occasion in which ordinary Americans decide who will be their president.


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