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Iowa voters in one of the most conservative counties speak out about political issues

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Iowa will be holding its first of the nation caucuses a little more than two months from now on January 15, giving its voters the first crack to set the tone in a presidential election year. We wanted to get a sense of what people there are feeling, so we went.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR BLINKER TICKING)

MARTÍNEZ: And we started in Sioux County, by the numbers, one of the most conservative in Iowa.

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MARTÍNEZ: The Fruited Plain Cafe is in the city of Sioux Center, just down the street from Dordt University. That's where candidate Donald Trump said this.

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DONALD TRUMP: I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?

MARTÍNEZ: We met...

CARTER KING: Carter King. I'm 20, and I am from Austin, Texas.

MARTÍNEZ: He's a psychology and theology major.

KING: My faith? I would say it's everything. I mean, it's the most important thing about me, the very first thing I want to tell people, the thing that I want to talk about most.

MARTÍNEZ: Carter says his faith guides every decision in his life, which includes politics.

KING: I feel equipped to discuss political issues and talk about political issues with a lot more open-mindedness, a lot more grace, a lot more seeking to understand. But at the same time, we're called to love our neighbor. We're called to be gentle. We're called to be gracious.

MARTÍNEZ: But gentle and gracious are not words associated with the current political discourse in the U.S. It's a year out from the presidential election, so Carter says he's still open-minded about the candidates. But we were sitting in a county that former President Trump won decisively in 2020, grabbing nearly 82% of the vote. So I had to know what he thought about the current GOP frontrunner.

KING: I don't know, 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.

MARTÍNEZ: We heard a lot of that in the deeply religious farm communities of Northwest Iowa. Since we were just down the street from where Carter goes to school, we decided to hear more from Dordt university students about where they stand on Trump.

GRAEME EDMOND: When he lost to Biden, there was, like, a lot of, like, stolen election talk. I wish maybe it happened, but it didn't really seem like it was really stolen. It seemed like he probably just actually lost the election. So I feel like it's not a good look to be whining about that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Graeme Edmond. I spoke to him at a spot on campus called Jacob's Ladder. It's a center point of sorts where students spill out from classrooms, buy a snack and meet while sitting on oversized, indoor-bleacher style seating. We made our way through the winding hallways of the building and walked into a journalism class. It was communication, law, and ethics taught by associate professor of journalism Lee Pitts.

LEE PITTS: So we'll all read, first, Chapter 1 together. We'll kind of calibrate our ethical compass, so to speak.

MARTÍNEZ: Philip Shippey is 20 and has lived in Sioux Center for seven years. He's a Republican, and next year would be his first time voting in a presidential election. But there's no guarantee Trump will get his vote.

PHILIP SHIPPEY: 'Cause as much as he's, like, the big Republican figure, I don't very much like him on a personal level.

MARTÍNEZ: So what is he looking for in a president?

SHIPPEY: We needed someone to be a president who's willing to reach across the aisle and, like, compromise and see that the other side does have good ideas.

MARTÍNEZ: Trump wasn't the only candidate on the minds of Dordt university students. Some were intrigued by Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and one expressed interest in independent candidate Robert Kennedy Jr., although all of them did not want another term from Joe Biden. Since we were there on Election Day, we figured it'd be worth it to find a polling place to ask how voters are feeling about next year. Orange City, Iowa, here we come.

The Prairie Winds Event Center in Orange City was where we found folks casting ballots on things ranging from city council to hospital trustee. Sara Hulstein is 38 years old. Now, it was 51 degrees and windy outside of the polling center, but remember, I'm from Los Angeles, and to me, it was bone-chillingly cold, which was a little embarrassing because Sara was dressed like it was a warm, summer day.

SARA HULSTEIN: In my sandals. I've lived here a long time.

MARTÍNEZ: Fair enough.

Orange City is the county seat and the largest city in Sioux County. The county is a Republican stronghold, and everyone we spoke to had strong feelings about defending recent conservative wins, such as restricting abortion access, which is pretty tough for Sara, who described herself as an independent.

HULSTEIN: When you live in a place like Northwest Iowa, there are two sides of the aisle, for sure. If you're not on the same side as the majority, there's a potential of being treated as less than. It's very conservative. And if you're not conservative, people, on the surface, accept you, in the rest of things, not so much, here at least. And I think most of those people would say, oh, no, we're not like that, but it is. The political tensions are already high, but I would really like to see somebody who can help bridge that divide rather than create a bigger chasm.

MARTÍNEZ: All in all, how do you feel about the United States right now?

HULSTEIN: Really sad. It doesn't feel inviting. I work for a global company, and so I work with people around the world every day. And there's not a single person sitting there going I'd really love to go to the Midwest. That looks like that's going to be a great time. And it's not just the weather, it's not just the people, it's all of the things that come with that. And I think that we have positioned ourselves in a place where other people - and I don't care if people like us, I don't need to be liked - but where other people think that we're crazy. That's a little scary, if we're going to be a world power. Like, I think that's what I worry about.

MARTÍNEZ: And what, if anything, gives you hope?

HULSTEIN: There are many people who truly want to see things be better, and that gives me a lot of hope. And seeing people actually take action to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "CLIMBING BEAR")

MARTÍNEZ: That was Sara Hulstein, a self-described independent voter from Orange City, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
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.

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