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Conservative voters in Iowa are open to moving on from Trump

Carter King, a student at Dordt University, a christian college in Sioux Center, Iowa on Nov. 7, 2023.
Rachel Mummey for NPR
Carter King, a student at Dordt University, a christian college in Sioux Center, Iowa on Nov. 7, 2023.

Americans will head to the polls in less than a year to elect a new president. Iowa will play a pivotal role in narrowing down the Republican field of candidates during its January caucuses. The current GOP frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, won the state in 2020 by more than eight percentage points. He had his strongest showing in Sioux County, where he won nearly 82% of the vote.

The county, which is located in the state's northwest corner, is considered to be one of Iowa's most conservative. But even the people there seem increasingly willing to consider alternatives to Trump. That includes 20-year-old university student Carter King.

"He kind of feels like a little bit of a loose cannon right now. You don't really know what you're going to get," King told Morning Edition. King, who hails from Austin, Texas, attends Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Student study in a common area known as Jacob's Ladder at Dordt University, a christian college, in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2023.
/ Rachel Mummey for NPR
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Rachel Mummey for NPR
Student study in a common area known as Jacob's Ladder at Dordt University, a Christian college, in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2023.

Dordt University describes itself as the top-ranked Christian college, with a student body of roughly 1,900. Republican candidates regularly make their way to Sioux Center and surrounding communities to speak with voters. This includes Trump, who last visited the area in early November.

In 2016, then candidate Trump made headlines when he remarked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any voters during a campaign event on the campus of Dordt University.

Questions about Trump's character

The last seven years have eroded some of Trump's grip on the voters in this particular part of Iowa. For many people in these small farming communities, their faith guides many aspects in their lives and also affects their political decisions.

"My faith — it's the most important thing about me and the very first thing I want to tell people, the thing that I want to talk about most," King said.

King and others pointed to Christian beliefs and conservative values when asked about what they look for in the next president. And while many voters in Sioux County expressed gratitude for some of Trump's policies, including his role in overturning Roe v. Wade, they remain conflicted about his personality and moral compass.

Philip Shippey at Dordt University, a christian college, in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2023.
/ Rachel Mummey for NPR
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Rachel Mummey for NPR
Philip Shippy at Dordt University, a Christian college, in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2023.

"As much as he's like the big Republican figure, I don't very much like him on a personal level," said Dordt University student Philip Shippy.

Questions around Trump's personality became a theme that emerged over several days of reporting in Sioux County and across the state, and not only among college students. People in northwestern Iowa want someone they can trust, that protects and supports their beliefs and makes them proud to be an American.

"I want the candidate to be honest," said Georgia Johnson, who spoke with NPR after casting her vote in the local election on Nov. 7.

With roughly a year left until Election Day, many people said they will start paying more attention to the various candidates. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy were names that Iowans mentioned in conversations.

Patrons at The Fruited Plain Cafe in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2023.
/ Rachel Mummey for NPR
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Rachel Mummey for NPR
Patrons at The Fruited Plain Cafe in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2023.

Others were intrigued by independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But one thing that almost all of the voters NPR spoke with had in common was a desire to prevent President Biden from spending another four years in office.

"Anyone that would get this current president out of there would be a win in my humble opinion," said 61-year-old John Gross.

Abortion and border security

Among the most pressing issues for voters in Sioux County were abortion and border security. In particular, abortion appeared to drive voters.

"I'm a Christian, and I believe all life is sacred. And life begins at conception. And we should try to support the young unborn," Margene Eckhoff said.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in July signed a six-week abortion ban into law in July. A Polk County district court blocked the abortion ban shortly after and it now goes to the state Supreme Court.

Reynolds, who earlier this week endorsed DeSantis, sent Iowa National Guard and law enforcement to Texas in August at the request of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to secure the southern border.

It's two issues that have penetrated state and federal politics and also appear front and center among the Republican contenders as the latest debate in Miami on Wednesday showed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).