In his second trip to Iowa this week, President Obama is going deep into conservative—and wind—country. The repeat visit to the battleground state is a sign his campaign considers the relatively small batch of six electoral votes as both critical and getable as new polling in the state shows Obama’s lead over GOP nominee Mitt Romney lagging.
Obama is scheduled on Saturday to speak at Morningside College in Sioux City, on Iowa’s western border with Nebraska. Sioux City is in an especially conservative part of the state that also happens to be where much of Iowa's growing wind-energy production is focused.
“This would be a way of appealing to a group of voters that might otherwise have very little reason to support Obama,” said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
New polling in Iowa this week has shown the race between Obama and Romney to be nearly even, after several months in which the president enjoyed a 4- to 5-point lead. Iowa's six electoral votes are a fraction of the numbers in other swing states like Virginia (13 electoral votes), Ohio (18), and Florida (29), but unlike those three states, Iowa’s economy has increasingly grown to be identified with wind energy—and this is an issue where clear differences exist between the two candidates.
Romney has expressed opposition to the most important federal policy the wind industry has right now, the production tax credit. The credit is set to expire at year’s end unless Congress votes to extend it, an outcome that will depend heavily on who wins in November. Romney not only came out in opposition to the tax credit, a campaign spokesman issued the statement to the Des Moines Register, the newspaper in Iowa’s capital city, where Obama will be visiting before his Sioux City stop on Saturday.
Iowa ranks second behind Texas for the most wind power installed. The industry provides between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs in the state, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But largely because of the uncertainty about future tax incentives, companies in the state and around the country are laying off workers. Last week, Clipper Wind Power laid off 176 employees—a 32 percent decrease—in its Cedar Rapids, Iowa, operations. Obama advisers blame Romney’s opposition to the tax credit for exacerbating the situation.
“Romney's opposition to the tax credit only serves to increase uncertainty and adversely impact manufacturing activity and investment decisions in this sector,” said Joe Aldy, a Harvard professor who worked on energy issues in the Obama White House in 2009 and 2010 and is now advising the campaign.
Unlike some renewable-energy policies, the production tax credit has broad bipartisan support throughout the country. Top Republican leaders in Iowa, including Gov. Terry Branstad and conservative Rep. Steve King, who represents the district that includes Sioux City, support extending the tax credit. The state’s senior Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who authored the original production tax credit in 1992, was first surprised, then confused, and then felt betrayed at Romney’s opposition to his policy.
“There were people from outside the state came into Iowa and issued a press release that the Republican candidate for president was opposed to wind energy,” Grassley said during a town hall meeting in Iowa in early August, shortly after the Romney campaign stated its opposition to extending the production tax credit. “I felt it was just like a knife in my back, as the author of the bill, without even being consulted about it.”
A Grassley spokeswoman said in an e-mail on Thursday that Grassley has talked with the Romney campaign about many issues, including tax and energy policy, and supports Romney for president.
The Republican infighting over the tax credit helps make the case for Obama in Iowa, even if the case is being made to a small sliver of the electorate.
“In the context of it being a close race and there are very few voters out there to swing, you’re going to use the issues that have some leverage to your advantage. I think this is what he [Obama] is doing,” Covington said. “The magnitude isn’t going to be great. It doesn’t necessarily have to be great to have an effect.”
It’s not clear whether Romney’s opposition to the PTC will be enough to convince would-be Romney backers in Iowa to withdraw their support, though.
“There is more that binds Romney to the folks in the western part of the state than this might cause them to move away from him,” Covington said.
Obama tried to move those voters on Tuesday at Iowa State University in Ames, and he’ll try again in Des Moines and Sioux City on Saturday. Overall, it will be Obama's seventh trip to Iowa this year and the 12th of his presidency.
“You can choose an energy plan written by and for big oil companies. That’s what my opponent is offering,” Obama said on Tuesday, before citing the nearly 7,000 wind jobs in Iowa. “Or you can choose an all-of-the-above energy strategy for America.”