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Renewable Fuel Standard No Longer the Third Rail of Iowa Politics

01/26/2016

By Karen Kerrigan

Next Monday, February 1, all eyes will be on the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucus. For the first time in the 2016 election season, we will hear directly from voters who they want in the White House.

In the lead up to the caucus, the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) asked Hawkeyes what issues were important to them. According to the statewide survey of 700 registered Iowa voters, conducted between January 11 and January 17, 2016, Iowans are most concerned about issues such as immigration and ISIS, while very few focused on a candidate’s position on corn-based ethanol. In fact, federal ethanol mandates were dead last on the list of topics potential voters wanted presidential candidates to talk about, with a mere 19 percent of likely voters considering the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and federal corn ethanol mandates to be “very important.” Iowa voters were much more interested in hearing from presidential candidates on issues such as immigration (82%), ISIS (81%), job creation (81%), the national debt (76%), welfare (66%), Obamacare (62%), gun control (61%), race relations (54%), climate change (51%), and finally federal ethanol mandates (39%).

These poll results mark a distinct shift in Iowa voter’s priorities. According to Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson, “I’d been claiming that ethanol support has waned, but survey data validates it,” he said. “Good. I wasn’t making it up.” Swenson explained that the importance of ethanol as a voting issue has declined since the 2004 and 2008 election cycles because the United States was then “extremely energy sensitive, believing we were under the thumb of Mideast sultanates and tyrants — that our energy dependence was analogous to being a hostage,” Swenson said. However, the American energy renaissance, which was made possible by new drilling technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, flipped the script. The United States is now the global leader of oil and natural gas production.

Timothy Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, has also noted a waning of ethanol’s influence: “Once upon a time, opposing the RFS was a death knell in the Iowa caucus.” Nowadays, “I’m not sure it’s sort of the deal-killer kind of a thing.” Part of that, he explained, is that the party has changed, and Cruz’s end-all-subsidies stance “usually appeals to Republicans.”

The poll results also demonstrated that even in a corn-producing state like Iowa, conventionally popular national issues still dominate the minds of voters. The survey found that despite significant coverage regarding the RFS in local and national newspapers, many Iowans were unconcerned with the debate, with only about a third (36%) having seen news coverage related to the RFS recently. Similarly, only about one-in-ten Iowans claimed to be “very familiar” with the RFS.

These findings are consistent with public opinion research commissioned by CRS last fall in Vermont, Indiana, Northern California, and Illinois. This research yielded some interesting results:

Clearly voters in Iowa, and all across the United States, are excited about the upcoming presidential caucuses, and they are eager to hear how candidates plan to bring meaningful changes to their state and country. However, corn-based ethanol, while always somewhat compelling in a heavily agricultural state like Iowa, appears to be a non-factor for voters this year.

Karen Kerrigan is president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council). The Center for Regulatory Solutions is a project of SBE Council.