Iowa's economy: Not issue No. 1?

@CNNMoney January 2, 2012: 10:13 AM ET
Compared to other early-voting states, Iowa's economy is actually in pretty good shape.

Iowa's unemployment rate is just 5.7%.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CNNMoney) -- If there is one state where the economy might not be issue No. 1, it's Iowa.

That's because the first state to begin presidential candidate selection has emerged relatively unscathed from the housing bubble and financial crisis that wreaked havoc on other parts of the country.

Today, unemployment is relatively low. Farmland -- and its edible bounty -- are in high demand. Home prices are stable.

That's not to say things are great. But they could be a lot worse.

On the campaign trail across Iowa, the 2012 Republican contenders frequently bring up their plans for the economy, the tax code and federal spending.

While their message might play well with some Iowans, that kind of talk should ring truer as the campaign focus shifts to Nevada, Florida and South Carolina in the coming weeks.

Compared to those other early-voting states, Iowa's economy is in good shape.

Only five states have lower unemployment than Iowa's 5.7% rate. (New Hampshire, which holds its primary a week after Iowa's caucus, is one of them.)

Florida and South Carolina, for example, have rates near 10%, while Nevada sports a whopping 13% unemployment rate.

One key reason for Iowa's relative success in recent years is a sharp increase in demand for agricultural products.

Fueled by increased global demand, livestock prices have rebounded and farm incomes are on the rise.

As a consequence, farm and land prices have spiked. Since 2004, Iowa land values have increased by 93%, according to a report produced by Iowa's Labor Market and Workforce Information Division.

Farmers are doing so well that capital investments are on the rise, a trend that bolsters in-state equipment manufacturers such as John Deere (DE, Fortune 500).

Iowa's campaign economy

However, it's not all good news for Iowa.

During the recession, the state's sizable manufacturing base was hit hard -- just like Michigan and other Rust Belt states. Iowa's manufacturing sector shed 29,500 jobs between 2007 and 2010, or about 59% of all jobs lost during that time.

And young people are having trouble finding work. In 2010, the 20-to-24 year-old age group had an unemployment rate of more than 9%.

The report on Iowa's workforce also found that some college graduates are unable to find work in their chosen profession, and have instead settled for "lower-skilled, often temporary work."

While Iowa's population crossed the 3 million mark for the first time in 2010, the state is still sorting though population shifts in which residents are moving from low-density rural areas to bigger cities and towns.

Even if Iowa's economy is relatively good, candidates playing to a wider audience would be wise to keep harping on the economy.

According to a recent CNN/ORC International poll, the economy is the top concern for Americans, a trend that is unlikely to change before Election Day.

Fifty-seven percent of the nation says the economy is the most important issue facing the country now, with the deficit listed a distant second at 16%. To top of page

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