POLITICS
12/28/2011 10:57 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

Unemployment In Iowa 'Almost A Second-Tier Issue'

Iowa, the state that gets the most attention in the Republican primary process, is among the places least affected by the most pressing issue in the campaign for the White House: unemployment. The first state in the Republican primary contest, Iowa has an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent, compared with 8.6 percent for the rest of the nation. And a recent poll revealed that Iowa Republicans likely to participate in the state's Jan. 3 caucus are less worried about unemployment than the rest of the country is.

Republican presidential candidates have said they support dramatic changes to the unemployment insurance system. Mitt Romney would like to privatize it. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry want to drug test people who apply for benefits. Candidates frequently talk about the struggling middle class during their time in Iowa, but the candidates haven't said much about why or how they'd carry out their policies, because there's no political pressure for them to provide details.

Does the state's sunny economy prevent a more rigorous debate on joblessness? A top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives thinks so.

"Iowa has only 6 percent unemployment. Of all the damn times when Iowa could do us some good, the unemployment picture and making it a bigger issue," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said in an interview last week. "But instead ... unemployment is almost a second-tier issue."

Earlier this month, Kingston was at the center of a shambolic congressional debate over unemployment insurance reform. House Republicans wanted to slash the duration of federal benefits, along with a host of changes to the unemployment system. Their proposal would deny benefits to uneducated jobless not enrolled in GED courses or job training, and it would allow states to drug test unemployment claimants, a priority of Kingston's. The reforms passed the House but died on the way to the Senate, though they will likely return early next year.

Political observers have long lamented the disproportionate influence of Iowa primary voters, which by one estimate is five times greater than that of voters in later primary states. And there's some evidence Iowans are less worried about the economy: The latest New York Times / CBS News poll found that only 19 percent of likely caucus goers said they were very concerned someone in their household could lose their job in the next year, about half the national level.

Brian Darling, a senior fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Iowa primary voters have too much power as compared with their counterparts in other states. But he said it's not a big deal if Republican primary candidates don't get into the weeds on unemployment policies, since the real differences will be between the eventual nominee and President Obama.

"I think the debate on unemployment and unemployment insurance, that's going to play out in the general election," Darling said.

He added that Congress is to blame for the lack of a proper national debate on unemployment insurance, since big proposals land on the House floor without hearings and at the last minute. "I think what we're having is a problem where these big issues get debated in a very short period of time in Congress because of the way these debates keep popping up."

As for Iowa, Republican party officials have defended the state's primary power. Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn told HuffPost earlier this year there's plenty of anxiety about joblessness in the Hawkeye State, despite the positive stats.

"I think it does speak to the president's failed leadership that at a time where commodity prices with corn and soybeans are strong, farmland values are high, the fact that we still have even 60 percent of independent voters in the state disapprove of his handling of the economy, shows you that Iowans care more about just their parochial interest," Strawn said. "They care about what is happening to the country."

Iowa's economy benefits from a thriving insurance industry and agribusiness subsidies, but most importantly its population has grown slowly and the state did not suffer from the housing bubble that crashed the economy at the end of 2007.

Rob Richie, director of FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for a more equitable electoral system, said candidates pandering to Iowa primary voters now will eventually have to pander to the rest of the U.S. But some of the candidates will have dropped out by the time that happens.

"As things progress, they'll have to broaden their message, but it will be fewer candidates, so there will fewer perspectives," Richie said. "We really miss out by narrowing the field before high-turnout general elections. It affects the nature of public understanding of some of these issues."

Iowa's population stands at 3 million. As few as 80,000 are expected to participate in the caucus next month.

"I'm glad that every American has the right to vote, but I'm not sure that the Iowa Republican caucuses are going to be very indicative of what the rest of the country cares about," said Karen Nussbaum, director of Working America, a community organizing affiliate of the AFL-CIO. "Iowa has one of the lowest unemployment rates, and right now we're looking at 26 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or discouraged."

Additional reporting by Mollie Reilly.

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