Anyone who has ever been involved in political-debate prep knows that candidates must be ready to deal with “gotcha” questions testing their understanding of facts important to voters. Most famously, in 1992, George H.W. Bush had to admit he was clueless about the price of a gallon of milk, illustrating how much the wealthy senator’s son had lost touch with Americans suffering through a recession. There are local variations of must-know questions as well. A working knowledge of sports is always helpful. One of the things that helped sink Martha Coakley in her legendary 2010 upset loss to Republican Scott Brown in a Massachusetts Senate special election was her inability to recognize the name of Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
In Iowa, where politics is a popular sport, any competent candidate knows how to answer questions like “What is your all-time favorite Iowa State Fair butter sculpture?” (The safest answer is the butter Last Supper). But I have been reliably informed that any decent Iowa debate-prep notebook has a tab marked “commodity prices,” which are still a very big deal in agriculture-dependent Iowa. That’s why this flub from incumbent U.S. senator Joni Ernst in Thursday’s debate with her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, is so astonishing:
If it’s not clear, Greenfield nailed a question about corn prices, while Ernst missed a parallel question about soybeans by a mile after trying to avoid it. As moderator Ron Steele noted, Ernst should know better, since she “grew up on a farm.” This was perhaps a sarcastic reference to the heavy, heavy emphasis Ernst placed on her extensive experience in hog farming during her first Senate race in 2014, as exemplified in this famous ad:
All that hog-castrating (yuk yuk, get it? Pork? Big Spending?) provided Ernst, mostly known as a stone wingnut with an admirable National Guard service record, a very useful contrast with her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley, who all but took himself down in a viral video that showed him telling an out-of-state fundraising audience of trial lawyers that a Republican Senate takeover would put a “farmer from Iowa” (Chuck Grassley) in charge of the Judiciary Committee.
This time, it’s Ernst who is going to have to cope with video from this debate showing her twisting in the wind as she admitted her ignorance about a basic fact of Iowa life. Maybe Republicans will buy her claim that audio problems kept her from properly hearing the question, but it’s not going to work elsewhere, I suspect.
It’s not good timing for the incumbent, who has trailed Greenfield narrowly but consistently in every poll taken since early August. Ernst has also been running a few points behind ticket mate Donald Trump, who has his own problems in a state he carried by over nine points in 2016. As Vox’s Dylan Scott observes, Trump’s current unpopularity is like a millstone around Ernst’s neck:
Ernst has a few problems; the state’s suburbs are growing, and like suburbs everywhere, those voters don’t like Trump. She also voted to repeal Obamacare in 2017 (Iowa is a Medicaid expansion state) and has been saddled with the effects of Trump’s ethanol policies on the state’s farmers. And in the past few months, Covid-19 cases have been rising in the state.
“Between President Trump’s unpopularity and the criticisms of Governor Reynolds [for her mishandling of COVID-19], that has all led to a pox on all their houses and dragged down Ernst,” Karen Kedrowski, a political science professor at Iowa State University, told me. “Ernst has been a good soldier on the Republican side, and Greenfield has used that against her.”
Perhaps residual polarization will push Iowa into the GOP column eventually, at least in the presidential race, but Joni Ernst may not be pulled across the line if she cannot correct the impression that she is both ignorant and a phony.