Palo Alto County, Iowa — A Democratic landslide in the next election?
Not if the views of voters in this county--consistently on the winning side in every presidential election since 1896--are any indicator.
Here in northwest Iowa, where the shoots of newly planted corn are just starting to push through the rich black soil, there are few signs as yet of any Farm Belt revolt against the GOP.
Not that this was ever wildly enthusiastic Reagan country. In the 1980 election, the President got a comfortable margin of more than 500 votes from the county's 7,144 registered voters. Jimmy Carter edged out Jerry Ford here by roughly the same margin in 1976. But in 1980, many farmers said they were voting against Mr. Carter and his grain embargo rather than for former Iowa sports announcer ''Dutch'' Reagan.
That's why it comes as something of a surprise to a visitor--listening to widespread grumbling about the grim state of the economy and those high interest rates--that President Reagan is viewed as a man apart. Congress and the Federal Reserve Board net the lion's share of the blame.
''Reagan did what he had to do, but he's only one man,'' Bill Fisher, a farmer in Curlew, observes. ''If Congress would show as much leadership as Reagan, we could still turn this thing around.''
There is a widespread feeling that Mr. Reagan and his fellow Republicans deserve more time before they are judged.
''I think he needs a longer time to try his policies - his program hasn't been given a chance,'' says Elmer Reinders, a retired farmer from Mallard, sitting in the waiting room of the local grain elevator.
''Most people realize deep down that something had to be done and that we've got to stay with it and give it a little time,'' agrees the Republican county chairman, Philip Stillman.
Jane Whitmore, editor of the biweekly newspaper in Emmetsburg, the county seat, summarizes the view of many Palo Alto voters this way:
''I think the farmers were looking for something new when they voted for Reagan. I'm sure not everybody agrees with everything he's done, but they were hoping for the best, and there's still a certain amount of optimism around here.''
One reason that Palo Alto County voters may be less critical of Mr. Reagan than those in other parts of the Midwest these days: The current recession has not hit many of them as hard. Many small businesses face large inventories and reduced sales; but so far most bankruptcies and plant closings have hit outside the county. A quick check of the number of residents on public aid shows no marked increase from totals a year ago.
And farmers here, while complaining that grain prices are down and that constant rains have delayed soybean planting, are by and large still in business.
''Some young farmers are going broke, but it isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be,'' says Tom Arndorfer, manager of the West Bend Elevator in Mallard. ''It's tough going, but it's no disaster.''
Yet many, like Ed Norland, vice-president of an Emmetsburg bank, insist that the real testing time for local farmers is yet to come and that the current downward trend in grain prices does not bode well for the future. Certainly everyone is keeping a much closer eye on his own assets.
''There will have to be some improvement or there could be more foreclosures, '' he says.
Certainly jobs in the county are increasingly hard to come by. Manpower specialist Shirley Hoveland of the Jobs Service office in Emmetsburg says more older workers rather than teens are contracting to do corn detasseling this summer. Many farmers have told her they intend to rely more on their own children and neighbors for help.
''Money is just tight as a tick,'' says Jan Schaad, who with her husband runs Emmetsburg radio station KEMB. ''Everybody's tightening their belts and holding on - it's a real scary time.''
''A lot of people around here don't think we've hit the bottom yet,'' says John Brown, a lawyer and the Democratic county chairman. ''I think everybody, including the Republicans, think Reagan has gone too far. Anybody who's a Democrat in Iowa is going to be looking good.''
Reagan supporter Vivian Keerbs, owner of the Duck Inn in Mallard, a popular eating stop for area farmers who drive their pickup trucks to the door, says: ''We may have to go into a depression before we come out of this, but I think Reagan is on the right track. I knew it was going to be rough.''
But there is considerable concern here as to just how much rougher things can get.
''The first money I ever made was teaching in a rural school and I lost it all in a bank failure,'' says Basil Duffy, a retired farmer from Mallard. ''Reagan's program sounded a lot like Herbert Hoover's. I remember 1932, so I didn't vote for Reagan.''
Some owners of small businesses like Lorrie McNally, who with her husband, Charlie, runs an Emmetsburg bakery, supported Mr. Carter in the last election and say they have been hurt by Mr. Reagan's policies.
''If we had a major piece of equipment break and had to borrow at those high interest rates, it could make or break us,'' she says. ''Our whole county is made up of small businesses, and the next two years are going to be crucial. I'd rather be running a Washington, D.C., country club than a bakery.''
Floyd Farlow, owner of the Phillips 66 station on the west side of Emmetsburg , insists he has seen direct benefits from Mr. Reagan's decision to lift gas price and supply controls.
''It's allowed me to operate in a lot freer environment--now we have free-enterprise supply and demand,'' he says. ''I really think Reagan's doing a tremendous job if he can just get some cooperation from Congress.''
''I think Reagan has been as good to the small businessman as anybody could be,'' agrees Shirley Pico, who with her husband, Tom, owns and runs Emmetsburg's Suburban Motel. ''I admire the man for trying to do something. I'm afraid he might not get it done.''
Stamping out waste and fraud in federal spending is a high priority discussion topic in this county. Most have plenty of ideas on how best to do it. And many say that families as well as the government are going to have to learn to make do with less if the economy is to improve.
Most voters here tend to support more and deeper cuts in federal spending, including defense. Cutting back on social security cost-of-living increases, however, is a somewhat touchier issue. Many privately admit that the proposal has merit. ''The raises have come too fast and been too large,'' says Mr. Reinders of Mallard.
But raise the issue at a coffee shop counter where several senior farmers are gathered together, and Social Security becomes untouchable. ''You can cut anything in the world but that,'' says one farmer. Another, well into his 70s, admits that his concern about the uncertain future of Social Security is precisely why he keeps on working.
President Reagan's tax moves--whether easing business and estate taxes or insisting on the individual tax cuts in July--have won him few friends here. The recent news about Attorney General William French Smith's use of tax shelters, for instance, did not amuse most Palo Alto residents.
''Most people feel Reagan's pretty much taking from the poor and giving to the rich,'' says Boyd Griffith, an Emmetsburg lawyer, who points out that the income of 70 percent of his firm's clients fell last year. ''A lot of people say they wonder where the government is going to get the money to operate.''
''Reagan has been much more concerned about the big boys than the working class,'' agrees Robert E. Brennan, a Democratic member of the county board of supervisors, who says that he ''reluctantly'' voted for Mr. Reagan but that he would like to see a more evenhanded policy.
Support here for the July tax cut, even among veteran Republican voters, appears to be nil.
''It seems kind of foolish to cut taxes when we have such a big deficit,'' says GOP County Chairman Stillman. ''I think it's probably a little too much too quickly.''
''I think the cut is too generous,'' says John Spies, president of Emmetsburg's Iowa Trust & Savings Bank and a Republican. ''It doesn't seem to me it's going to create any jobs.''
''Why lower taxes until we get our spending cut?'' adds Paul Freeman, president of the Cylinder State Bank and Reagan supporter.
Though there was some talk here initially that the Falklands crisis might cut back Argentina's grain production to the advantage of US farmers, the chief concern here now is the US taking of sides and whether or not that could involve this country in the war.
''Keep our boys out of Argentina--I'm for that 100 percent,'' says Fred Beschorner, a retired carpenter and veteran of World War II who says he voted for neither Carter nor Reagan.
A recent Gallup poll suggested that the majority of Americans--52 percent--think the President should not run again in 1984, and, despite their willingness to give him a chance, that appears to be the prevailing sentiment in Palo Alto County as well.
''I think a lot of people are hoping accordingly--since he won't have to depend on his popularity--that he'll stick by his guns and try to finish what he started to do,'' says Ed Norland.