With less than month until the first presidential caucus, the media are turning more of their attention to Iowa, where voters will head to the polls on January 3.


This morning (between segments focused on how an ice storm around Des Moines is cutting into critical campaign time) CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were asking analysts if and how John Edwards can close a roughly six-point margin between him and Democratic leaders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The answers were of the usual big-picture variety. For instance, MSNBC had Edwards’ campaign manager David Bonior on the phone explaining that Edwards has “a great rural strategy,” and that he has visited the 99 Iowa counties twice. But what of the specific issues that matter to Iowans, and are particular to Iowans? As if justifying today’s superficial conversation with Bonior in advance, MSNBC.com ran an atypical story yesterday about problems with local hog farms.


It is not the type of article that will turn the election (or even the polls), and it might not interest many Americans that do not live in rural areas, but it highlighted a unique intersection of environment, business and politics on the campaign trail. More importantly, it provided the type of substantive information that might actually help readers and pundits answer a question like, Does Edwards have a chance? Unfortunately, as the article’s author, Carrie Dann, noted in her lede, it is an important story, and a political issue, “that’s easy to ignore. That is, unless you smell it.”


“The influx of so-called ‘factory farms’ has provided a rallying cry for rural Democrats,” according to Dann. Otherwise known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), these large complexes pack an incredibly large number of animals into very little space per capita. Dann visited one CAFO where there were 800 hogs in residence and described the ghastly “stench.” Proponents of these facilities argue that they are the “backbone” of Iowa’s livestock industry, while opponents contend that they degrade air quality and, even more importantly it seems, hurt small local farmers and erode Iowa’s traditional rural culture. It takes Dann awhile to get from CAFOs to the campaign, but she does so with authority:


With so much attention on the all-important caucuses, then, the political stink over CAFOs and vertically integrated factory farms has risen to the level of presidential politics here in Iowa.


As an issue that crystallizes anti-corporate sentiment, rural values, public health and animal cruelty concerns, it has proven to be a strident rallying cry for Democratic presidential candidates who are counting on support in small rural precincts on caucus night.


Dann reports that both Clinton and Obama support local officials having more say in where CAFOs are built, as well as stricter environmental regulation (the mega-farms are mostly exempt from the Clean Air Act.) “But no candidate has taken as stringent a position against CAFOs as John Edwards, who made waves earlier this year by calling for a national moratorium on the expansion of existing CAFOs and the construction of new facilities altogether.”


Dann might have stopped her story with this summation of the candidates’ positions, but thankfully she does not. In fact, she proceeds (quite presciently) to answer the question that her on-camera colleagues asked this morning: Can Edwards catch up? In Dann’s version, the specific question is, Is his stronger position on CAFOs enough to close the gap? According to her:


Analysts say that one of John Edwards’ greatest strengths in the Iowa contest is his heavy presence in rural areas. Small precincts in low-population counties in Iowa only select a fraction of the total number of delegates elected on caucus night, but Edwards could rack up a substantial tally of those one-and two-delegate precincts if his rural message resonates forcefully enough there.


Of course, by sticking to the anti-CAFO line, Dann noted, Edwards also risks alienating the many Iowans who are now employed at the large, industrial farms. So ultimately, it’s still anybody’s guess which Democrat will win the Iowa caucuses and for what reasons. Thankfully, by abandoning the superficiality of a lot of campaign coverage and honing in on an issue that is not only specific, but also particular to Iowa, Dann’s MSNBC.com article at least helps readers make an informed guess.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.