It is now that time of year where everyone predicts how they think the election will turn out. I will hopefully have time to make an Electoral College prediction of my own, but I also think that it would be interesting for me to list my prediction for the outcome of Iowa’s election. I spent last summer working there for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, and have since gone back to work with the Des Moines Register to cover the Democratic primary debate at Drake University (where I got to interview my first presidential candidate!), so I have some familiarity with a variety of aspects of its politics that others might overlook.
For one of my classes, I had to pick a state and write about what its outcome will be, and I chose Iowa because I thought it would be an interesting essay to write, and indeed it was. My conclusion is that Trump will carry it by a not-insignificant margin, which is impressive since Republicans have only won it on a presidential level one time since 1988. However, it is less shocking if you consider Iowa’s distant and recent history. Here is why I think Trump will win Iowa. Let me know if you think I’m right or wrong! It’s now too late for me to change the essay itself for class, and we’ll know soon enough if I was right.
The 2016 presidential election may seem to most observers to have been highly unpredictable, but the reality is that, despite the unconventional nature of Donald Trump’s campaign, the fundamentals that have guided previous elections are still firmly in place. Partisanship, demographics, the economy, and presidential approval were as critically important on a national level in the 2016 election cycle as ever. These factors were also important on the state level, and Iowa was no exception. As one of the whitest states in the nation, with large numbers of non-college educated whites, Iowa was fertile ground for the Trump campaign to pick up a state that Barack Obama carried twice. Iowa’s partisan distribution, relatively stable demographics, slouching economy, and relative disapproval of President Obama all suggest that Trump will win — and probably by a wide margin of over 2.5%
Before turning to the future of Iowa’s voting in a presidential election, one must first look to its past. For much of its existence, Iowa has been more fertile ground for populism than much of the rest of the country. In the late 19th century it elected several members of the populist Greenback Party to Congress, and was also the home state of Greenback Party presidential hopeful James Weaver. This complements Iowa’s “long and bipartisan history of rabble-rousing, going back to the 1890s.” This populism has continued to flare up from time to time. “During the Great Depression, farmers held dramatic strikes and even kidnapped a judge who presided over foreclosures. In parts of the state, martial law was declared.” (Jacobs) The Trump campaign has given Iowans a chance to channel some of this populist history once again.
For most of its history, Iowa has voted Republican on the presidential level. In fact, in the 42 presidential elections that have occurred since Iowa became a state in 1846, Democrats have carried it only 13 times, 7 of which occurred before 1988. However, the state has recently been trending Democratic on a presidential level, only voting Republican once since 1988, all of which is reflective of a “deeply ingrained culture of competitive, purple politics and continue a swing-state trend that reaches back at least a generation.” (Economist) Although Bill Clinton carried the state in both 1992 and 1996, the Clinton family does not have the connection with Iowa that it does with other states such as New Hampshire. When Clinton ran for president in 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin also ran for president as a Democrat, which meant that the Iowa caucus was not contested since a Harkin victory was a foregone conclusion. When Clinton ran for reelection he did not face any serious primary opposition and once again did not have to meet the grassroots activists from around that state in the runup to its caucus. The state is even less fertile ground for Hillary Clinton, because her Iowa loss to Obama in 2008 set the stage for the ultimate win by Obama in the Democratic primary. Moreover, Republicans have had a series of statewide successes in recent years that cannot be overlooked, and Harkin himself was succeeded in 2014 by Republican Joni Ernst. At the time, elections forecaster Harry Enten noticed a trend that played out this election cycle: “white voters in Iowa without a college degree have shifted away from the Democratic Party. And if that shift persists, it could have a big effect on the presidential race in 2016.” (Enten) Republicans now control 3 out of the 4 House seats in addition to both Senate seats. Iowa’s Republican Governor, Terry Branstad, is also the longest-serving governor in the history of the United States. It is very likely that Iowa will return to its origins by voting for a populist-themed Republican candidate for president. Iowa’s Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann has said that the state is witnessing a “resurgence of rural populism” similar to other periods of its history, from which Trump is the best-suited to pick up voters. (Jacobs)
One of the key fundamentals in any presidential election is the partisan breakdown of any given entity. Political science research continually shows how critical a role partisanship has been in elections, and its significance has only increased in recent years. Until the 1990s, conservatives voted for Democrats for Congress 35% of the time, but by 2002 that dropped to 20%. Researchers including John Sides and Lynn Vavreck have noted that the “power of partisanship [is] one of the fundamentals of presidential elections and American politics generally.” (Sides, 8) Iowa has consistently been a swing state that both presidential campaigns competed for going back several election cycles, and this election was no different. Both Trump and Clinton have heavily invested time and resources into winning the state. Fittingly, it was included in Gallup’s list of swing states, but a closer look at the data suggests that the fundamentals of the state point to a Trump victory. Republicans have a 3.3% advantage in the state. In a close election, every vote counts, and this is what distinguishes Iowa from its neighboring Midwestern states. Ohio and Wisconsin are also both considered to be “competitive” by Gallup and others, but there were fissures within their state Republican Parties that simply did not exist in Iowa. (Gallup)
One of Trump’s biggest assets in Iowa that was relatively unique this election cycle was his broad-based support among members of the state’s Republican establishment. This is particularly important when considering how in neighboring states such as Wisconsin, the Trump campaign was in open warfare with senior Republican figures such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. This establishment support for Trump is not a newfound adoration of him; rather, it has been in place since the election began to pick up steam. In the runup to the Iowa caucus, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad urged Iowans to consider supporting anyone but Ted Cruz, due to Cruz’s opposition to federal subsidies for ethanol, which most Iowans view as critical to their state’s economy. Branstad even went so far as to say that it would be “a big mistake for Iowa to support [Cruz].” (Collins) At a time when conservatives such as those at National Review were taking a stance “against Trump,” Iowa’s Republican establishment gave him cover against the ultimate winner of the state’s caucus. (Pfeiffer)
In the months since the caucus, Iowa’s political establishment remained mostly steadfast in its support of Trump. Branstad’s son even took over operations as the State Director. (Henry) Both of Iowa’s Senators and all three Republican House members also stood by their support for Trump, even after the waves of nationwide defections in the aftermath of the release of the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape. Importantly, Iowa’s local media continually reinforced the support that federally elected Republicans in the state had for Trump, calling their position a “stark contrast to Republicans elsewhere in the country and particularly other states thought to be competitive in the presidential race.” (Noble)
Polling in Iowa has always shown a close race between Clinton and Trump, and even liberal bloggers were fretting a few weeks before the election that “Iowa [is] at real risk of becoming a red state” and that “Democrats could very well lose their narrow majority in the State Senate and not pick up the eight seats needed for control in the State House.” (Rynard)
Iowa’s political history suggests two drastically differing outcomes for the presidential election, and the first outcome is where the significance of the down ballot elections comes into consideration. In 2004, George W. Bush was able to carry Iowa narrowly after having lost it by under a percentage point in 2000. A key difference between those two elections was the presence of Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on the ballot in 2004. Grassley has been an immensely popular figure in Iowa politics for decades, and it is certainly conceivable that he actually had a coattails effect for Bush, helping to propel him to a win in Iowa that Bush was unable to secure four years earlier. The Bush campaign ran ads linking him to Grassley, which is something that it was not able to do four years earlier since Grassley was not on the ballot. Grassley is once again running for reelection in 2016, and is sure to beat his Democratic opponent. This suggests that he will be able to lift Trump’s final vote tally, since Grassley did win with over 70% back in 2004, carrying every single county in the state. The fact that Bush was an incumbent is also important, as Samuel Popkin and Anthony Downs argue (Popkin, 86), but the presence of an extraordinarily popular and proven vote-getter sharing a ticket with him is likely to have helped him in his narrow win over Kerry.
The second historical argument is that Iowa has an unusually high rate of voting in tandem with Wisconsin, a state that is increasingly out of the presidential contest in 2016 since a Clinton win is all but assured. This argument suggests that Trump is likely to lose in Iowa. Smart Politics concluded that “the vote for president in Iowa and Wisconsin has been very highly correlated over the decades.” Towards the conclusion of its analysis, Smart Politics writes that “the current state-to-state candidate spread in polling of Wisconsin (+5 Clinton) and Iowa (+5 Trump) is 10 points. The last time the spread was that large between these two Midwestern states on Election Day was 80 years ago in 1936 when Roosevelt carried Wisconsin by 33.5 points and Iowa by only 11.7 points.” (Ostermeier) A wave of that magnitude is certainly unlikely in this cycle, but the strong tendency of Iowa and Wisconsin to vote together bodes poorly for the Trump campaign. With Wisconsin likely to go to Clinton, a Trump victory in Iowa would certainly be historic. But Iowa’s partisanship and the loyalty of the Republican base and establishment to Trump certainly suggest that he will carry the state, and other indicators suggest the same as well, meaning that he will likely break this historic voting trend. Although Iowa and Wisconsin have a similar track record in presidential elections, this argument is not based on any of the election’s fundamentals, and therefore carries far less weight that arguments that have other data supporting them.
Another key reason that Trump has been able to keep Iowa more competitive than states such as North Carolina is demographics. According to the US Census, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 30% of the population in a swing state like North Carolina, whereas almost 92% of Iowa is white. Unlike much of the country, “in recent decades Iowa has seen almost no demographic change.” (Jacobs) Whites dominate Iowa, and as a group are a relatively reliable voting bloc for Republicans, with Mitt Romney carrying them over Barack Obama by 18 points. Additionally, Romney outperformed Obama among white Catholics and Protestants by 19 and 39 percent, respectively. (Abramson, 119-120) This leaves Trump with a significant cushion in a state with as many white voters as Iowa.
The religious breakdowns also offer Trump reason to feel comfortable with Iowa’s outcome. Pew Research Center found that 77% of the state is Christian, and more specifically that 58% is either Evangelical or mainline Protestant, and over half of Iowa’s population believes that religion plays an important role in their lives. (Pew) Since World War Two, research has found that “white Protestants, especially those outside the South, tended to favor the Republicans.” (Abramson, 126) Evangelicals are particularly critical, because their presence helps to explain why Trump is shedding far less support in more moderate areas than he is in other parts of the country. Evangelicals have been one of the most receptive groups to Trump’s candidacy, and the Trump campaign is doing fairly well in the suburbs, “mostly because such areas are home to significant numbers of evangelical Christians, to whom Clinton is simply anathema.” (Jacobs)
The final demographic boost that Trump is likely to receive from Iowa comes from non-college educated white voters. These voters constitute 62% of Iowa’s electorate, which is the highest proportion of any state in the entire country. (Wasserman) This is one of Trump’s core constituent groups, and he has the potential to build upon Romney’s 21% margin of victory with high school graduates by a significant margins. (Abramson, 119) All of these demographics combine to make Iowa a state that is tailor-made for Trump’s candidacy. In fact, Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa argues that “demographically, it’s a great fit for Trump. We have very small Latino and African American populations.” (Seitz-Wald)
Another key metric in determining the winner in Iowa is the attitude of voters about the future. If voters are happy with the status quo, a Clinton victory could be in the cards since that would entail continued Democratic control in the White House. If they want change, then a Trump victory is more likely. In the renowned “Iowa Poll,” voters believe that the country is on the wrong track by approximately a 3:1 margin. This is highly problematic for Clinton. Additionally, a plurality believe that the state is on the right track, which further suggests that voters are content with voting for Republicans, since Republicans run the state. Another cause for concern for Clinton is that Iowa Democrats are far more splintered than Iowa Republicans are. Bernie Sanders held Clinton to a draw in the caucus, and many of his fans are not gravitating to Clinton. The poll found that 37% of Iowans had supported Sanders at one point, but 27% of those now are unlikely to vote at all in November. Additionally, “Clinton has not succeeded in locking up a significant slice of one-time Sanders supporters who will cast ballots: 62 percent say they’re backing Clinton, while 20 percent have migrated to Trump.” (Noble) While the other 17% are likely to vote for Clinton due to the strength of partisanship, these defections stand in stark contrast with the unusual amount of intra-party unity that Iowa Republicans have been displaying for months. Republicans have a natural partisan advantage in Iowa that is augmented by party unity. Democrats are left with even more ground to recover because their party has deep internal conflicts, putting them at a greater disadvantage.
Another key fundamental that Sides, Vavreck, and others have identified is the national economy. The Iowa Poll shows that voters were dissatisfied with the direction of the country as a whole, but it also shows that they believe that Trump is better-suited on a wide range of economic issues. Although Clinton and Trump are tied on the question of which candidate would negotiate better trade deals, Iowans favor Trump on fixing the economy, determining tax policy, and other issues. A combination of pessimism about the direction of the country and a belief that Trump can fix the economic problems that voters are facing furthers Trump’s advantage. (Noble)
Both Clinton and Trump are viewed negatively by Iowans for a wide variety of reasons; the Iowa Poll also importantly puts Obama at a 52% disapproval rating. (Noble) The Huffington Post’s poll average shows that Obama’s image has recovered slightly among Iowans in the weeks since the Iowa Poll was taken, but his approval rating is still around 4% lower in Iowa than it is nationwide. (Huffington Post) Iowa was the state where Obama first took off in 2008 after he won the caucus and he carried it in both 2008 and 2012, but his success there does not imply success for Clinton’s candidacy. Iowans now both approve of Obama at lower rates than the rest of the country and believe that the country is on the wrong track, suggesting that they are ready for a change.
All of this polling data has been borne out by Iowa’s recent history. Sides and Vavreck argue that the national economy is a key fundamental (Sides, 8), and Iowa’s own economy helps to explain why it is trending away from its recent history as a swing state won by Democrats. For over a year, “Trump has made the health of the U.S. manufacturing a cornerstone of his insurgent campaign.” (Oliphant) This message is particularly resonant in Iowa, because manufacturing is the largest industry in Iowa, and its decline has been a cause of concern to many voters, particularly in rural areas of the state. The weakness of Iowa’s manufacturing sector leads to a general sense of dissatisfaction with the economic status quo. In fact, “in fading factory towns like Dubuque and Waterloo, long bastions of Democratic support, Trump’s anti-free trade and anti-immigration message is increasingly finding an audience,” which should be concerning for Democrats, given that Obama won a majority of the white vote in Iowa four years ago. (Jacobs) Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, believes that “people just are not happy and uneasy about the economic situation.” (Iaconangelo) The decline in Iowa’s manufacturing economy, combined with an overall pessimism about the direction of the country are conditions that are perfect for Trump’s populist campaign message.
Iowa has not been a Republican-friendly state on a presidential level in recent years. However, its fundamentals seem to be reverting it back to a closer resemblance to its populist-infused past. Donald Trump’s campaign has been far better-suited to taking advantage of the baseline partisanship, demographics, pessimism about the economy and views on Obama than Hillary Clinton’s. Although his advantages in Iowa may doom his campaign in other swing states, the combination of these factors has created a perfect storm that will allow Trump to pick up a state that Obama carried twice in a row, and that a Republican has only won once in the past seven election cycles.
For more on the great state of Iowa, read my other articles about it here!
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