Iowa’s Ethanol Echochamber: Who Said What, and What Difference Did it Make?

February 16, 2016

For raw data used in the ethanol tracker below, please click here. For bar chart, see below.

It was not a surprise that many Iowa Caucus candidates pandered to Big Corn and the ethanol lobby in the lead-up to February 1. For several presidential cycles, kissing up to King Corn has been considered a necessary part of the Iowa political calculus, right up there with visiting the State Fair. But this year turned conventional wisdom on its head.

Members of the Smarter Fuel Future team spent the past few weeks monitoring every word from the Iowa campaign trail, recording each time candidates said the word “ethanol,” or mentioned the “Renewable Fuel Standard.” As our ethanol ticker shows, in media interviews, speeches, debates and visits around the state, “ethanol” repeatedly rolled off the tongues of our would-be presidents. Yes, despite the negative effects the broken federal ethanol mandate has on our environment, economy and engines, many candidates took opportunities to praise Iowa’s ethanol or to attack other candidates over their stances on the policy (see our second place finisher). In the entire field of candidates, just two spoke of their opposition to the RFS. In fact, the candidate who mentioned “ethanol” the most—Senator Ted Cruz—devoted most of his “ethanol” mentions to explaining his opposition to Iowa’s beloved RFS.

And that’s where the conventional wisdom got flipped. Despite constant attacks from ethanol cronies, the candidate most vocally opposed to the federal ethanol mandate won the Iowa Republican Caucus (something no other anti-RFS candidate had ever been able to do)—recording more votes than any Caucus winner in history and even claiming victory in Iowa’s top corn producing county. This unprecedented result has led many political pundits to believe ethanol is no longer the “third rail” of Iowa politics, or—more plainly put—it’s possible to win in Iowa without cozying up to the ethanol mandate.

While it’s clear ethanol was a hot topic in Iowa, future candidates will see the results of the 2016 caucus and may be more inclined to stick to their values—whether free market or environmental—rather than pander to Big Corn. But to see if this comes to pass, we’ll have to wait four years until all eyes are on Iowa once again…