OPINION:

Candidates aren’t talking impeachment, but Iowa voters are

Before I visited Iowa last week to report on the 2020 campaign, I expected to find an impeachment-free zone, a piece of America's heartland where voters cared little about the inquiry that has become an obsession on Capitol Hill.

I was wrong.

Over three days in the state, I asked Democratic voters if they were paying any attention to the president's impending impeachment in the House. Most looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

"Yes, yes, yes," said Alicia Palas, 28, a retail store manager from Des Moines.

"I think about it every day," said Angie Septer, 42, a dental assistant from Des Moines. "They impeached Bill Clinton for adultery. This guy committed treason."

"Every Democrat is paying attention," said Don Dumdei, 65, a retired data analyst from Waukee.

It's true that voters aren't peppering Democratic presidential candidates with questions about President Donald Trump's quid pro quo in Ukraine or the Constitution's emoluments clause, but there's a reason for that.

"It's kind of a no-brainer," explained Jim Eliason, the Democratic chairman in rural Buena Vista County. "All the candidates agree that Trump ought to be impeached. There's not much to ask about."

Voters want to know what a President Biden, a President Warren or a President Buttigieg would do to restore the farm economy after Trump's ruinous trade war with China, improve their access to affordable health care or deal with the ravages of climate change — not how fervently they want to impeach the man they're already competing to replace.

Besides, Iowa voters read the same Washington forecasts as the rest of us: the House may vote to impeach Trump, but the Republican Senate appears certain to let him keep his job.

The whole affair could blow over like the winter snow squalls that are already sweeping across the Corn Belt.

A recent poll showed that Iowa voters rank several issues as more important than impeachment: for Democrats, health care and the economy; for Republicans, the economy and immigration.

And who can blame them? Those challenges will persist long after Trump is either removed from office, left in place or even re-elected.

"Mainly, folks wonder whether it might snow in the middle of the corn harvest," Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, wrote this week. "And whether that idled ethanol plant will fire up again. And if they will lose money again this year because of the trade war."

One more reason Iowans don't rush to share their views of Trump's erratic lawyer,Rudolph Giuliani, or his memory-challenged ambassador, Gordon Sondland: Many of them live in closely knit communities where national politics has become a minefield.

"Trump is tearing people apart," said Sue Usher, 67, a retired Catholic school secretary from Waukee. "If you live in a small town, you don't go looking to start a fight."

As the first state to cast ballots in the primary season, Iowa is routinely derided by outsiders as unrepresentative of America — too rural, too white, too "Iowa nice." But in one respect, its voters may mirror the nation.

A Fox News Poll released Sunday found that Americans remain closely divided over impeachment.

Some 49% of registered voters supported removing the president from office; 4% supported impeaching him but letting him keep the job; and 41% opposed impeachment proceedings entirely.

As with most issues involving Trump, the poll showed a stark partisan divide: Democrats overwhelmingly think Trump should be tossed out of office, while the vast majority of Republicans don't think he should be impeached, let alone removed.

Still, the survey suggests those opinions could evolve.

More than one-third of voters who oppose impeachment said they might change their minds if new information comes to light. That pool of persuadable people comes to about 14% of all voters.

"There is an undecided group out there," a Republican political consultant told me. "They're trying to work through it: How bad was this? Is it impeachable? They haven't come to a conclusion. They need more information."

Well over half of all voters — both Democrats and Republicans — said they were following impeachment news extremely closely or very closely. Independents were the exception. Almost1 in 4 said they weren't following the story, but independents tend to be less politically engaged than partisans.

One more rough index of public interest: cable news ratings have spiked since Sept. 24, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced the impeachment inquiry.

If history is any guide, nationally televised hearings, which could start as early as next week, will prompt intense interest and fierce debate. Both sides will try to use the spotlight to try to convince those undecided voters.

That notion that Iowans aren't interested in impeachment? It's a myth. They're paying plenty of attention.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.