With Ann Selzer’s poll dump from Iowa, it has become clear that in the current national environment, the state is closer than expected. The major political issues and the electoral makeup of Iowa make the state one to watch in the coming months, especially if the polls start pointing closer and closer to a Biden landslide.
May the 4th (3rd, 2nd, & 1st) be with you
As noted in the Selzer polls and in the results of the 2018 gubernatorial election, the 4th congressional district has huge sway in the results of statewide elections in Iowa. Compared to the other districts in the state, the 4th consistently votes for Republican candidates by a wide margin. This makes any election result in Iowa contingent on how Democrats are able to compensate for this deficit.
In the gubernatorial race in 2018, Fred Hubbell lost the 4th by 21 points, while winning the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, by 1, 3, and 4 points, respectively. This ended up translating to a 3 point loss. Compared to the State Auditor’s race, Hubbell did 7 points worse on average in these congressional districts. This, combined with a nearly 10 point performance difference in the 4th, led to the 8 point statewide disparity in these two close statewide races.
So why do the congressional districts in Iowa behave this way? It’s a question about the voter demographics in each area.
The 1st Congressional District is centered around Northeast Iowa. The main population centers in this district are:
- Cedar Rapids, the economic hub of eastern Iowa, home to Collins Aerospace and a sizable chunk of the state’s corn processing.
- Dubuque, a major manufacturing town on the Mississippi River
- Waterloo-Cedar Falls, home to John Deere and the University of Northern Iowa, respectively.
This CD is the home of many white working-class Obama-Trump voters, with the district, especially the rural parts, seeing some of the largest swings in the nation in 2016. This district is a must-win for statewide Democrats in Iowa. While the Selzer polls show the Democrats up in this district, they also show it as the closest district in the state. The margins here will help provide an indication of how Biden and Democrats as a whole are doing with WWC voters in Iowa and across the nation. Rep. Abby Finkenauer is vulnerable for re-election, and a Biden and/or Greenfield win in this district could help bring her over the finish line against the Republican nominee, State Representative Ashley Hinson. I’d set a benchmark of Democrats +7 for this district for a statewide Democrat win in Iowa.
The 2nd Congressional District is in Southeast Iowa. Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, whose only talent seems to be poor city and campus design planning (Coralville student parking and 3 different transit systems come to mind), is located in this district. IA-02 also contains its environs in Johnson County, along with the Iowa portion of the Quad Cities and other manufacturing towns along the Mississippi River.
This district is the most Democratic congressional district in Iowa. While home to a large population of WWC voters, the presence of Johnson County, the most Democratic county in Iowa, means that no Democrat can win without this district. If there is a congressional district where the Democrats are capable of a double-digit margin in, it’s this one. The Selzer polls have been good for Democrats in this district. Especially important this year since it is an open seat in the U.S. House that the Democrats are defending. Their nominee is 2018 Lieutenant Governor candidate Rita Hart and the Republicans are putting up state senator and the 2008, 2010, and 2014 nominee for this seat, Mariannette Miller-Meeks. My personal handicap here would be Dem +15 for a statewide Dem win, but expect the House race to be closer than this.
The 3rd Congressional District is in southwest Iowa. The state capital and largest city in Iowa, Des Moines, is in this district, along with Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha. The district has experienced high population growth, most of which is in and around Des Moines and Polk County.
This congressional district is going to be the closest to the average of the three swing districts. Due to the larger number of votes that come out of this district, Biden and Greenfield should aim for a margin close to 8% if they want to win statewide. Rep. Cindy Axne seems to be on the course to win re-election against the man she unseated in 2018, David Young. It is possible that Axne out-runs the top of the ticket in this seat, but we’ll know more as we get closer to November.
The 4th Congressional District is in Northwest Iowa, and is very rural. Small cities such as Sioux City, Clear Lake, Mason City. It also has Ames, the best college town in the United States (home to Iowa State University, the reigning Big XII Men’s Basketball Tournament champions, and home of Corn Jesus himself, Brock Purdy). The district has also just thrown out notorious Rep. Steve King in the primaries on June 2nd, replacing him with State Senator Randy Feenstra. Feenstra ran not against King’s controversial statements, but rather that he would be able to get stuff done in Washington and be a more effective ally for Trump.
With Steve King no longer in the running, Democrat J.D. Scholten is likely to lose big in November. With this in mind, the Democrats need to try to bring out the vote in Ames (Story County), and win in neighboring Marshalltown (Marshall County), and in Mason City (Cerro Gordo County). If the Democrats can keep the GOP margin to 30 points or less, it can give them room in the other districts to breathe.
With the variedness of each district, the question becomes how do Democrats compete in each district. The rural nature of Iowa as a whole means that farming-related issues are important throughout the state. The trade war against China has hurt Iowa farmers to the point where the state’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, has had to apply for the Trump farm bailout to help support his family’s farm.
Rural Iowa communities are close-knit, and for these communities to see the farmers hard hit by the trade war has hurt Trump’s standing to some extent. Farmers haven’t only been slammed by the trade war alone. COVID-19 has hit the meat processing plants of Iowa hard. This has led to farmers in Iowa unable to sell their livestock, depriving them of further income. The economic issues affecting farmers could lead to a rebound for Democrats in rural Iowa.
The effects of COVID-19 in Iowa have also brought to attention the collapse in rural healthcare in Iowa. There was fear among some about what would happen if the outbreaks reached a critical point and led to the collapse of the rural hospital system. These fears were further compounded when Sioux City’s hospital system was put under extreme stress due to outbreaks at the surrounding meat processing plants. Rural hospitals are also suffering from the effects of having surgeries and procedures cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple hospitals have approached insolvency due to lost income from cancelled or postponed surgeries or procedures. The outbreaks of COVID-19 have exposed the rural healthcare system’s fragility.
Trump approval remains underwater within the state. With the political climate polarizing more, along with split-ticket voting occurring less each cycle, Republicans in Iowa should be worried that there is more room for Trump (and by extension, Ernst and other candidates in Iowa) to fall. The Iowa House is also another contested race in the state, and Democrats have a chance to gain control of the chamber, ending the current Republican trifecta in Des Moines. If Trump can’t improve his approval rating come October or November, he can forget about winning the state that had one of the most dramatic flips in 2016.