Economy is top U.S. farm election issue: Reuters poll

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - As the election season kicks into high gear, farmers think the economy and immigration are the most important issues the presidential candidates should focus on as they campaign, a straw poll conducted by Reuters showed on Wednesday.

Reuters surveyed 686 of the 5,000 farmers attending the American Farm Bureau Federation’s meeting in New Orleans this week. It found that 30 percent said the economy was the most important issue followed by immigration at 22 percent and taxes at 12 percent.

“A good, strong economy solves a lot of other problems in the country,” said Dennis Reid, an Alabama poultry farmer.

The straw poll did not attempt to weigh responses by state, size of farm or other criteria. The Farm Bureau is the nation’s largest farm group, representing producers of cattle and hogs as well as growers of cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans.

U.S. farmers have traditionally supported Republicans in the presidential race, including President George W. Bush in 2004.

And so far, this year is no exception. The poll showed that 82 percent would vote for one of the Republican candidates if the election were held today. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee garnered the most support among farm members sampled at 30 percent with Sen. John McCain closely behind at 29 percent. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was third with 9 percent.

Republicans have yet to produce a clear favorite. McCain breathed life into his campaign after winning in New Hampshire, but it was Huckabee who scored the first big win of the U.S. presidential race in Iowa. In the latest contest, Romney won on Tuesday in Michigan.

Meanwhile, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are gearing up for Saturday’s nominating contest in Nevada, where a new poll showed a tight battle. Clinton, the New York Senator and former first lady, narrowly upset Obama in New Hampshire on January 8. Obama scored a major victory in Iowa, winning the caucus a few days earlier.

In the Reuters survey, Clinton and Obama each drew support from 5 percent of the growers and ranchers responding.

Jim Dooley, a grower of wheat and soybeans in Kansas, said he was disenchanted with the Republican party and hoped for a change in leadership with Obama.

“Obama is not as deeply rooted in the D.C. turmoil as some of the old-timers running again. Maybe get a fresh face in there,” said Dooley.

Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said the broad support for Republican candidates by members polled was not surprising, but the dynamics may be shifting a little given the call for change among some voters.

“In terms of rural America and agriculture country I think what you saw with the Iowa caucuses was what voters were concerned about, you may see a shift in the rural areas,” said Stallman. “The idea that people are looking for some change may impact candidates that were associated with the old guard.”

Reporting by Christopher Doering; editing by Jim Marshall