MILLS RIVER, N.C. — President Trump doesn’t have a kind word for China these days, but he praised at least one “smart” move by the communist nation during a swing-state stop Monday: two bulk orders of corn that will lift U.S. farmers, a critical voting bloc.
“The largest order of corn in the history of our country, twice. Largest order of soybeans in history,” he told supporters at the Farmers to Families Food Box in western North Carolina.
Stepping into full campaign mode, Mr. Trump is highlighting the hardworking men and women of the heartland every chance he gets. Even an Arizona salvo over illegal immigration turned into a paean to the agricultural sector, which relies on seasonal workers.
“We are very tough at the border. When people want to come in for our farmers, etc., etc., we’re not going to hurt our farmers,” he said in Yuma last week.
Keeping farmers in his corner is critical to the president’s chances in November, as Democrats poke at pressure points in Mr. Trump’s rural firewall and highlight the harm that trade wars and a debilitating pandemic inflicted on key markets.
A tit-for-tat tariff war with China forced Mr. Trump to seek billions of dollars in bailout money for farmers caught in the crossfire, while low demand for fuel ethanol during the pandemic and natural disasters have added to the turmoil.
“We don’t have any stability. We think China’s going to buy corn. Maybe they are, but we don’t have any transparency as to whether that’s true,” said Patty Judge, a former Democratic lieutenant governor in Iowa and co-chairwoman of the Focus on Rural America, a group that helps liberals connect with rural communities.
“It’s just not a fun time to be here [in farm country], and that kind of anxiety and general discontent usually spells a change in the ballot box,” she said.
Polls suggest rural voters, generally, remain firmly in Mr. Trump’s corner after backing him 61% to 36% over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A Farm Journal Pulse poll from mid-August found 8 in 10 farmers would vote for Mr. Trump and only 13% for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, although the survey was taken before the party conventions.
Meanwhile, a Gallup poll this month found that 45% of these self-identified rural residents say that “only Donald Trump would be a good president,” while 31% say only Mr. Biden would be.
There may be some daylight for Mr. Biden, however.
A Fox News poll in July among rural voters found 49% supported Mr. Trump while 40% preferred Mr. Biden, a far narrower gap than Mr. Trump’s margin over Mrs. Clinton.
The idea that farm-heavy states will vote for Mr. Trump is a sure bet in some states but a “rebuttable presumption” in others, given what has happened since the start of the year, said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University politics professor.
“Trump will carry Kansas and Nebraska but Iowa could flip,” Mr. Baker said. “The Democrats know that under no imaginable circumstances could they win a majority of farm-state votes. But in states such as Iowa that have been competitive, a marginal gain among nominal GOP voters could deliver the state.”
Hoping to sway rural voters and farmers, the Biden campaign said it would double a “microloan” program for new farmers — who didn’t inherit their land — to $100,000, and help small and midsized farms combine their supply chains to sell more product to schools, hospitals, and state and federal institutions such as the Defense Department.
Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are working overtime to make sure rural America stays in its corner.
Mr. Trump stopped in Iowa to pledge assistance after a devastating derecho storm, though Ms. Judge said he should have spent more time surveying the damage and that follow-through from the administration will be critical in the weeks ahead.
In a separate stop, the vice president criticized Democrats for pointing out the potential impact of meat consumption on climate change.
“We’re not going to let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America’s meat,” Mr. Pence told Iowa farmers and ranchers.
During his campaign stop in North Carolina, Mr. Trump said farmers and his administration are helping feed families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The administration purchased $3 billion in fresh produce for the program and announced Monday an additional $1 billion for Farmers to Families. More than 70,000 boxes of food have been delivered to charities and food banks thus far.
“I am thrilled to be at the Flavors First Growers and Packers facility here in the great state of North Carolina. You know Joe Biden was supposed to be in Wisconsin, but he never showed up. I showed up,” Mr. Trump told supporters as he stood in front of a John Deere tractor and delivery truck.
The courting is part of a long-term effort. Ranchers have been guests at White House events — big hats and all — and the president repeatedly told them to buy bigger John Deere tractors after he secured the contours of the phase one China deal last fall.
But then the pandemic hit, making it even harder for China to live up to a farm-purchasing target that was highly ambitious for any year.
A tracker from the Peterson Institute of International Economics, a Washington think tank, says China is not on pace to meet its $36.6 billion commitment for 2020. It tallied $8.7 billion purchases through June, compared with a year-to-date target of $18.3 billion.
The deal set an even loftier goal of $43.3 billion next year.
“The 2020 target was always overly ambitious,” Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute. “And certainly would require massive planting and a sharp increase in planting to get to the 2021 target.”
Mr. Trump insists things are picking up and on track. In a series of campaign speeches, he has doubled down on his anger with China over its handling of the coronavirus crisis but says Beijing is wise to keep ordering corn, soybeans and other products.
“China is very smart,” he told the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a roll call to give him the presidential nomination.
The Trump campaign says farmers will reward the president for his actions on China.
“Farmers know that President Trump has had their backs at every moment, and they know that he has stood up to China for their decades of cheating on trade issues,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “Farmers are long-term planners, and they know that stopping China’s bad actions was a fight that needed fighting, and they also know that the president made sure they were compensated for China’s unjustifiable, retaliatory tariffs.”
Democrats say too much damage has been done and farmers never know what’s around the corner.
“America’s farmers and rural communities have paid a heavy price for President Trump’s tariffs,” the Biden campaign website says. “While Trump is pursuing a damaging and erratic trade war without any real strategy, President Biden will stand up to China by working with our allies to negotiate from the strongest possible position. And, he’ll make sure our trade policy works for American farmers.”
Mrs. Judge said both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden have a precious several weeks to make their case for stability and progress in rural communities.
“I think a lot of agricultural community is really concerned right now and I think they’re on the bubble. I think as we look down the road from here to November, it’s very likely a number of people who voted for Trump are going to vote for Biden this time,” she said. “When people voted for [Mr. Trump], it was because we were looking for change. I guess we got it, but not for the best.”
⦁ Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.
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