Iowa City, Iowa The “Great Recession” barely touched Iowa City.
The University of Iowa and its hospital are in the middle of a construction boom. A manufacturer is touting plans to hire 175 people for a new iron foundry. Farmers working the land outside the city are flush with cash from record-setting crop prices.
Yet, after Rick Perry entered the Republican presidential race, he rolled into town on a bus emblazoned with “Get America Working Again” and offered prescriptions for fixing the economy. Newt Gingrich stopped by to bash what he calls job-killing environmental and labor regulations. Ron Paul said during a recent visit that an overreaching federal government is hurting “the productivity of all of us and means we will be poorer.”
Throughout the campaign for Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, it hasn’t seemed to matter much that the state economy is in far stronger shape than the rest of the country, with unemployment at 5.7 percent, agricultural real estate selling near all-time highs and some manufacturers reporting a shortage of skilled workers to fill all their openings.
Republican voters who in past election years focused on pocketbook issues specific to Iowa, such as corn subsidies or ethanol policy, say they’re taking a wide-angle view of the economy this year. They blame President Barack Obama for its sputters and fear giving him a second term will slide it back toward the abyss.
“The economy is still suffering, even though the numbers don’t say it. People are hurting and things have gone downhill since Barack Obama became president,” said Pam Swick, a Council Bluffs retiree and Perry supporter.
“Yes, things are better here. But they’re still not good,” she said. “And don’t credit President Obama for it. He’s made it worse. Things here are going fine despite him, not because of him.”
Iowa’s economy fell into recession later than the nation’s and didn’t drop as far as some other states, said Iowa State University economist David Swenson. There wasn’t much of a housing bubble, partly because the state is slow-growing but economically stable.
Yet a recent New York Times/CBS News poll found the economy was by far the most important issue to likely Republican caucus-goers. Leading the polls off and on in recent weeks have been the candidates most associated with the pro-business, small-government, economic freedom slices of the GOP: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Those with stronger ties to the party’s social conservative base — Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Perry — make time for a healthy dose of economics during their stump speeches.
To be sure, not all of Iowa is as economically healthy as Iowa City. Swenson said that while Des Moines and the corridor between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are doing well, cities such as Waterloo and Mason City that rely heavily on manufacturing are struggling with long-term unemployment and a slow recovery.