Agriculture and the 2016 Presidential Election

Agriculture and the 2016 Presidential Election

by Kevin Price
VP of Government Affairs

Clinton Trump

With the field of presidential candidates narrowing to where it appears likely Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination and Donald Trump will get the Republican nomination, I thought it would be of interest to project where agricultural issues might play in the general election.  This comes with large caveats in the sense that we of course don’t know for sure what will happen in the coming primaries and conventions, with some theoretical likelihood at least that on the Republican side Senator Cruz could emerge from the convention with the nomination.  If that’s the case it could change these dynamics since Senator Cruz has been a staunch opponent of U.S. farm programs and, specifically, U.S. sugar policy.

Secretary Clinton has a long and visible public policy record having served in the United States Senate for eight years from 2001 to 2007.  During that time she cast over 2,300 votes, some on agriculture policy, including sugar and the 2008 Farm Bill.  She voted in favor of both.  Donald Trump, not having served in public office, of course does not have a voting record so it is difficult to assess his positions on agriculture.  We do know that during the Iowa caucuses he endorsed U.S. ethanol policy, and that decision may signal an openness to other agricultural policies.  He has spoken very strongly about the need to alter existing trade agreements, including the not-yet-enacted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in the direction of what could be labeled as a philosophy of fair-trade rather than free-trade.  Secretary Clinton has also expressed concern over the TPP and says it should be renegotiated. 

How, or whether, these issues play in the general election remains to be seen.  It is clear that agriculture policy has not been a major driver in presidential politics in recent times.  It has risen in importance in certain primary and caucus states – such as Iowa – but rarely has agriculture policy or the farm bill been a determinative factor at the presidential level, even in agricultural states.  It is typically overshadowed in rural areas by social issues, for better or worse.  For example, Ted Cruz won Iowa, and he opposed ethanol policy.  Depending on how the Clinton and Trump camps view the electorate this fall, though, there could be openings for agriculture policy to play a role.  If, for example, Trump has problems gaining traction among some of the traditional Republican constituencies, or if he takes an unpredictable position on rural issues, Secretary Clinton could attempt to engage voters in some states she may otherwise views as uncompetitive.  Conversely, if Trump feels Clinton has vulnerabilities among some traditionally Democratic constituencies you could see him attempt to make inroads there as well.  I wouldn’t put high odds on this, but it’s possible.  

International trade policy, however, is looming much larger this cycle than in previous cycles given Trump’s, Clinton’s, and Bernie Sanders’ attention to the issue.  It has traditionally been an issue of significant sensitivity for labor organizations, and it appears to have gained traction among the non-labor union workforce as well.  This is likely why there isn’t much separation, frankly, between either leading candidate on this issue.  It’s much easier to explain what’s wrong with a trade agreement than what’s right with one, unless you’re speaking to an industry heavily reliant on export markets.  But even among those groups there are likely some who have experienced frustration in gaining a foothold in international markets, especially given how international markets are often prone to government intervention, manipulation, non-trade barriers and currency fluctuations. 

Regardless of the outcome we will need to establish a working relationship with the next Administration.  Sugar policy is governed not just in Congress but also at the Department of Agriculture and the Trade Representatives’ office, and other federal agencies.  We’ll be keeping an eye on these issues in the coming months and I’m sure you will, too.