DUBUQUE, Iowa — Like most campaign events held in daylight hours during the week, Pete Buttigieg’s town hall in Dubuque recently was a sea of gray hair. When the time came for questions, many were from older people sharing personal stories of declining health, concerns about the cost of prescription drugs and questions about access to experimental treatment.
A man who said he and his wife “just entered the realm of septuagenarians,” brought up the topic of assisted suicide, asking Mr. Buttigieg about legislation to help seniors with severe dementia have an “assisted transition.’’
With an impeachment reprieve over the weekend, all of the top Democratic presidential candidates were back in Iowa this weekend, seeking support in Monday’s caucuses from an electorate that is more white and more rural than most of the United States.
Iowa’s outsized role in presidential politics is often criticized for precisely that reason. But Iowa mirrors the nation’s economy and demography in one very striking way — the state’s rapidly aging population and the myriad economic, political and social consequences that flow from it.
Similarly, the economy that will have to support that population also mirrors the rest of the country. Its unemployment rate is low but economic growth is modest. Metropolitan areas are prospering. Rural ones dependent on agriculture are not.
“Iowa’s economy is two economies — we have a thriving metropolitan economy and then a nonmetropolitan economy that has not in aggregate recovered from the Great Recession — it’s losing jobs, it’s losing people, and we can see the consequences of this distress playing out.” said David Swenson, an associate scientist in Iowa State’s economics department.
The state known for corn and soybeans, its gas station pizza and life-size butter cow conjures stereotypes, said Mary Swander, one of Iowa’s former poet laureates. She has written about how outsiders view residents: “We’re rednecks and hayseeds from the hinterlands, the backcountry, the backwoods, and the boondocks.”
In reality, said Ms. Swander, who lives in rural Johnson County, “We’ve got all the problems that are a microcosm of the rest of the United States.”
And like the nation, it is increasingly driven by the impacts of its aging population.
Twenty years ago, Iowa had one of the oldest populations in the nation, and its senior population has grown rapidly since then.
But the nation’s older population has grown even faster, and today Iowa is squarely in the middle of the pack when states are ranked by age.
In Iowa’s smaller cities and rural counties, the increase in older residents does not make up for the loss of younger ones. In many parts of the state, the population is falling.
The share of United States residents over 60 is at a historic high, according to census data.
Iowa is now one of 27 where the population under 60 is declining while the population over 60 is growing.
Like elsewhere in the nation, Iowa’s aging population poses an economic headwind. The wave of retirees saps savings, shifting spending to health services and shrinking the labor force.
The young people who remain in the state are increasingly concentrated in a handful of cities. In the Des Moines metropolitan area, the population is growing at all age levels.
Elsewhere, communities have been retrofitted to adapt to its senior population, with modifications to parks, new walking paths and bus services to ensure accessibility. The Iowa Democratic Party’s 99 new satellite caucuses, created to make the process more accessible, includes more than two dozen assisted-living facilities or sites frequented by seniors.
“It’s a hugely important constituency,” said Bill Schickel, mayor of Mason City, which still broadcasts its City Council meetings on a public access channel to serve its large senior population accustomed to watching meetings on television rather than streaming on the internet. “They have high voting numbers and are regular voters.”
Seniors’ concerns have dominated numerous campaign events in the state, so much so that younger voters have struggled for attention to their issues.
“O.K., so hi, I’m a student here,’’ said a young woman at Mr. Buttigieg’s town hall, which was at Dubuque University. “And I’ve been to a couple town halls: Booker, Warren, Biden. And at every single one I was probably one of three or four college students.” With so few of her peers in the crowd, she wanted to know: “How important is this generation in this election?”
Broadly, the economic discussion on the 2020 trail has incorporated issues of general concern to younger voters: student debt and free college; a general progressive pitch for wealth tax.
In Iowa earlier this month, though, one of the most intense battles between the leading candidates centered on a matter of great importance to older Iowans: Social Security.
Senator Bernie Sanders, 78, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., 77, clashed repeatedly over the issue, as Mr. Sanders’s camp questioned Mr. Biden’s record on Social Security, seeking to cut into Mr. Biden’s appeal with older voters, while Mr. Biden insisted that he wanted to strengthen the program and expand benefits.
One effect of Iowa’s aging is that its overall population is growing more slowly than the rest of the country, and according to a recent Iowa State University study, this has become a cyclical problem as new residents are deterred from moving to a state where growth is sluggish.
The problems of an aging population have been compounded in Iowa by the struggles of the agricultural economy.
Farming states such as Iowa have struggled to keep pace with the rest of the country in terms of job creation and wages. According to Mr. Swenson, Iowa has been a laggard in that regard, with the rate of job creation since the last recession ranking sixth worst in the United States.
Economic forces that were already shaping Iowa’s economy have been exacerbated by policies enacted by Mr. Trump, putting additional pressure on farmers and manufacturers at a time when many are considering retiring.
Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa and co-founder of the advocacy group Focus on Rural America, pointed to declining pork and soybean prices over the last year as a result of the president’s trade war with China. The trade tension has also taken a toll on manufacturers that service farmers.
Mr. Link said that the administration’s waivers for oil companies have also been problematic for the ethanol industry and put pressure on corn prices.
“He made a promise to support corn growers and ethanol and he chose oil,” Mr. Link said of Mr. Trump. “He has taken on more water on that issue than he did on trade.”
John Heisdorffer, a soybean producer from Keota, Iowa, who is chairman of the American Soybean Association, said that farmers have been frustrated with Mr. Trump and feel disappointed that they have not seen an immediate pickup in soybean sales since the trade deal with China was signed in mid-January.
“Everyone is going to look at which candidate can change this down beat we’ve had for the last two years,” Mr. Heisdorffer said.
Rural hospitals have been closing and reducing services. While new, high wage jobs are scarce in Iowa, the state struggles to fill the jobs it does offer. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, leaving its smaller communities unable to fill jobs in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.
In many communities, immigrants have moved in to help fill jobs in an aging work force struggling to find enough workers.
While Iowa remains one of the least diverse states in the nation — 85 percent of the population is white and non-Hispanic — diversity is growing. Like half of the states in the U.S., Iowa’s white population is shrinking, while its minority population is growing.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s demographics are on full display at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, which offers services in English, Swahili and Kirundi. A few Sundays each year, immigrant congregants from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo mingle with white senior citizens for worship services and potlucks.
Rev. Daniel Niyonzima, a Burundian who lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania before fleeing to the United States, listed Iowa’s appeal for immigrants: good schools and cheap housing — with rents that are half the price of apartments in Rhode Island, where he first settled — and access to jobs suitable for people struggling to learn English.
“All this made me love Iowa,” said Rev. Niyonzima, who has lived in the state for 12 years, “and want to stay in Iowa.”
Katie Glueck and Reid Epstein contributed reporting.