National issues all the rage in US presidential race

NEW YORK • In Iowa, corn is no longer king. In Florida, subsidies for the state's powerful sugar producers are under attack. And almost all of the Republicans left in the 2016 US presidential race want to abolish the Export-Import Bank, which has provided billions to one of South Carolina's largest employers, Boeing.

In 2016, all politics is national. The hometown industries and parochial peeves that once shaped the early primary contests are rapidly losing clout this election season, overcome by the intensifying ideological cast of Republican politics and a potent anger about the economy and terrorism that has thoroughly overshadowed priorities closer to home.

All three Republican senators running for president have voted against the most recent federal farm Bill, once sacrosanct in Iowa and among the Southern voters who will decide the main Super Tuesday primaries on March 1.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has surged to the Republican lead in Iowa polls despite pledging to end federal rules that require corn-derived ethanol and other biofuels to be mixed with petrol.

Mr Cruz and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have proposed phasing out subsidies to sugar companies, which have contributed close to US$1 million (S$1.4 million) in the 2016 campaign and are a major employer in Florida.

In New Hampshire, where the most important campaign issue seems to be how often candidates show up, leading contender Donald Trump has spent far less time there than other Republicans.

"It used to be that you had to be right on all these local issues or you wouldn't pass the smell test in a state," said Mr Scott Reed, who managed Mr Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and is now a senior strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce.

"But now you have seven out of 10 voters thinking their country is headed in the wrong direction, and these national concerns are overwhelming the parochial issues."

One factor, some Republicans said, is the rising importance of the debates, which have been far more focused on national issues such as immigration and terrorism than on regional ones.

Another factor may be the shift in media consumption. Mr Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Mr Cruz, said more voters were getting their political news from national outlets, including conservative websites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller.

But perhaps the biggest force, Republican officials and strategists said, is that voters are paying close attention to issues like crony capitalism and government spending.

The Republican-aligned Americans for Prosperity advocacy group has led a multi-million-dollar campaign against the Export-Import Bank, asking Republican candidates to oppose renewing its charter, calling the bank "poorly managed corporate welfare".

The bank, which offers loans and guarantees to finance the export of US products, went on hiatus for five months last year before the US administration successfully inserted a provision in the federal highway Bill to resuscitate it.

"Rank-and-file primary and caucus voters are angry... with the leadership in Washington, DC, precisely because of those kinds of backdoor deals," said Mr Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. "They're more willing to respond to people with the guts to take a stand."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'National issues all the rage in US presidential race'. Print Edition | Subscribe