As the sun comes up, illuminating the quaint storefronts and shoveled sidewalks of West Branch, Iowa, just up the hill from the only major intersection in this small town, is the popular breakfast spot Reid’s Beans, where Jonathan Blundall is busy serving coffee to his regular customers.
“We’re not blowing the doors off the bank vault,” he said with a grin as he poured hot milk into two recently brewed espresso cups, “but we scratch out a living.”
Blundall’s living is made partly off loyal customers like Patricia Hamer. “We come here and talk about coffee and health and stuff,” she said. “And we don’t really discuss politics.”
But such conversation just days away from the February 1 Iowa caucuses is unavoidable, even in this corner of the restaurant, in this corner of America.
“But I certainly can’t see the guy with the red hair as president,” Hamer exclaimed, looking around the table for help remembering the name of the candidate she was referring to. She quickly got a hint and declared with some amusement: “Donald Trump!”
“You’re in a really curious part of Iowa,” said Blundall, “because it’s very evenly split here, if not leaning a little more liberal to the Democrat side.”
This curious part of Iowa — West Branch — is the hometown of the 31st president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, the only Iowan to reach the White House.
“He’s a landmark,” Blundall said.
A lot of pride
Though Hoover was a Republican in the 1920s and '30s who presided over the country as it descended into the Great Depression, there’s much support and pride for the man in his hometown.
But there was little support among the corner table group at Reid’s Beans for the party he represented, which is the same party that has carried this state in many congressional and Senate contests in recent years.
“Republicans back then were a lot different than Republicans now,” Blundall added.
“Hoover, I think, would be appalled by the vitriolic nature of things being said about other people right now in the campaign,” said retired minister and longtime resident Richard Paulus, who explained that much of what is being said on the campaign trail would be an affront to Hoover’s peaceful and humanitarian sensibilities.
Reid’s Beans is one of several local businesses that depend on regular customers who work at or visit the U.S. government-owned Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service, and the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum, run by the National Archives and Records Administration.
“It’s enabled small businesses like mine to survive and thrive,” Blundall said. “This is my wife and I’s only source of income.”
In the fall of 2013, that thriving small business was threatened by the turmoil created out of political gridlock in Washington, D.C., which traveled some 900 miles west to West Branch. The subsequent government shutdown that started October 1 of that year closed the U.S. government-run facilities frequented by tourists in the town.
Without a Herbert Hoover site to see, visitors stopped coming into West Branch. Workers also started to skip meals at Reid’s Beans, and Blundall’s stable income from his small business dried up at the worst possible moment.
“When you get such a precipitous decline like we had when the government shut down,” he recalled, “it really throws a wrench in things, especially when it’s the busiest time of the year for you, the kind you’re kind of banking on when the slower winter season comes along.”
The shutdown ended a few weeks after it began, and tourists and the business that comes with them slowly started to trickle back to West Branch.
Blundall said he’s become more supportive of Republicans as he’s grown older, embracing many of their ideals, but he blames them directly for the shutdown, and his anger lingers in the current presidential campaign. As a result, Blundall is looking toward the Democrats as the party he’ll support in both the Iowa caucuses and the general election in November.
“I’m afraid that my vote that I cast this time around is going to be cast against a candidate, rather than for one,” he said with some resignation. “Whoever has the best chance of beating someone that I think might be dangerous.”
The choice for Blundell is the same as it is for many other Democrats. It isn’t between two parties, but rather two candidates.
“It’s a tossup between Bernie [Sanders] and Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton,” Hamer said.
Even though it’s technically a three-way race for Democrats featuring former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Vermont Senator Sanders and former Secretary of State Clinton, O’Malley’s low poll numbers indicate there are two options: Clinton or Sanders.
“They both are talking about change, but she has been bound in with the so-called, shall we say “traditional approach” of doing things,” Paulus said to VOA between sips of coffee. “Sanders is one that would try to move much more radical change.”
In the final days leading up to the caucuses, the candidates are trying to woo undecided voters like the ones VOA spoke to in West Branch, who are key to winning the Democratic side of the race in Iowa. Turnout is another factor, which could give Sanders the edge.
“He really has to develop some kind of momentum, because Hillary Clinton’s going to be strong in South Carolina and later states,” said University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle. “And so a win here is going to give him perhaps the momentum he needs to overcome Clinton’s advantages down the road.”
It is a road that is paved by winning the support of voters who are looking for the candidate they feel has the best chance of winning the general election in November, a case both Sanders and Clinton continue to make as the clock winds down in the final hours of the Iowa campaign.