Iowa comes into 2020 as a crucial swing state. At the presidential level it contains six electoral votes and at the Senate level it has one of the year’s tightest races. Senator Joni Ernst (R) is fighting a tough campaign against challenger Theresa Greenfield (D). Polls for both the presidential race and the Senate race in Iowa are incredibly close; Elections Daily rates both as a tossup.
In the spirit of those close elections, this article is designed to give a feel for Iowa politics. Five counties from across the state that together highlight the state’s different geopolitical trends are profiled here. This piece will also layout statewide win benchmarks for each party within each county.
This piece aims to paint a broad picture of the swing state politics of Iowa using demographic data, precinct-level maps, and past election results. The 2018 gubernatorial election results serve as the map for each county. Kim Reynolds (R) defeated Fred Hubbell (D) by under 3% statewide. This provides a decent picture of what each county’s political trends look like, because of its recency and competitiveness.
- Race: 84.90% white, 7.20% black, 5.00% Asian, 8.70% Hispanic (of any race)
- Population: 490,191
- State Vote Share: ~15%
- Education: 91.50% HS degree or higher, 36.10% bachelor’s degree or higher
- Median income: $66,044
Iowa’s largest county is Polk, which accounts for around 15% of the statewide vote share. It is home to the capital of Des Moines, as well as the affluent suburbs of West Des Moines and Clive in the southwest corner of the county. It also has the rapidly growing northern suburb of Ankeny.
Other suburbs such as Altoona, Bondurant, and Pleasant Hill dot the edges of the populated areas, while the exterior of the county contains more rural communities. Des Moines is an extremely Democratic city and West Des Moines and Clive are solidly blue as well. Ankeny is much more closely divided and, as expected, the rural communities come in solidly Republican.
The size of Des Moines and its suburbs have made Polk a solidly Democratic county in recent years, despite spending much of the late 20th century as a light blue county. The trends of urban/suburban areas realigning as strongly Democratic and rural areas as strongly Republican help the GOP statewide but hurt them in this heavily populated county.
Polk also has a higher degree of college graduates than the average county nationwide and is under 85% white, which for Iowa is fairly diverse. Fred Hubbell carried Polk County by nearly 19 points in 2018 while still narrowly losing statewide, showing the extent to which Polk is in the blue column.
Some of the Des Moines suburbs still show a possibility for Democratic growth, although much of that growth potential may be more in the Dallas County suburbs. Joe Biden and Theresa Greenfield probably need to shoot for a 25% victory in Polk County to win statewide this fall. That seems steep, but if current trends accelerate, it’s certainly possible.
- Race: 85.5% white, 8.0% black, 2.9% Asian, 7.0% Hispanic (of any race)
- Population: 172,943
- State Vote Share: ~5%
- Education: 92.9% high school degree or higher, 31.9% bachelor’s degree or higher
- Median Income: $58,800
Scott County is home to the Iowa portion of the Quad Cities: Davenport and Bettendorf. Davenport accounts for over half of the county’s population and is the reason for the county’s blue lean overall. Bettendorf, which is slightly east of Davenport, is a swing city, with light blue and pink on the map. The remainder of the county comprises quite Republican rural areas. This includes LeClaire up-river as well as Buffalo down-river and then gets redder the more inland you go.
Scott County would not be considered cosmopolitan. The college education rate is almost dead even with the national average and median income is middling as well. Racial diversity is roughly equivalent to Polk County. The big difference is that Scott County is far smaller, casting around five percent of the statewide vote.
Still, it’s an important county as the third largest in Iowa and is a battleground area in a swing state. Hillary Clinton barely carried it while losing by over 9% statewide while Hubbell rebounded to carry it by nearly 3.5%. Those are both far cries from Obama’s 13% victories in both 2008 and 2012, however. The trends overall in Scott County, a white and middling-in-education area, aren’t great for team blue. That said, if Greenfield and Biden are running tight campaigns statewide, as polls indicate they are, they should both carry Scott County. If they want to win statewide, Democrats should aim to carry Scott County by at least 5%.
- Race: 86.0% white, 4.7% black, 2.9% Asian, 17.4% Hispanic (of any race)
- Population: 102,172
- State Vote Share: ~2.5%
- Education: 86.7% HS degree or higher, 23.0% bachelor’s degree or higher
- Median Income: $55,484
Woodbury County is the home to Sioux City, Iowa, just across the river from Nebraska. The city makes up about 80% of the county. As is rather evident by the map, the remainder of the county outside of Sioux City is pretty barren and unpopulated. That area is deeply conservative and gives the GOP healthy margins.
Combined with their solid showing inside Sioux City, the GOP is able to maintain an edge in Woodbury County overall. The county had a reputation as a swing area throughout the 90s and 00s. Obama even flipped this county between 2008 and 2012, one of the few nationwide and the only one in Iowa. His 2012 victory in Woodbury County was by just 1%, and Trump followed it up with a crushing victory of nearly 20%.
Reynolds was able to carry Woodbury by 13%. Overall, the makeup of the county suggests it will be staying in Republican hands this fall. It has low education levels, though its high Hispanic percentage is rather unusual for Iowa overall. That said, just because Trump and Ernst are likely to carry it doesn’t mean that the margin is irrelevant. If Democrats can get Woodbury to within single-digits, that would portend good things for their statewide efforts overall.
Cerro Gordo County
- Race: 94.4% white, 2.1% black, 1.1% Asian, 5.1% Hispanic (of any race)
- Population: 42,647
- State Vote Share: ~1.5%
- Education: 93.1% HS degree or higher, 22.7% bachelor’s degree or higher
- Median income: $52,902
Now we go towards the middle of the state and due north, close to the Minnesota border, to find Cerro Gordo County. This county is of particular importance because it is arguably the state’s best bellwether county. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Kim Reynolds was able to carry it by 3.4% while winning statewide by 2.7%, a good barometer of the statewide vote. The candidate winning it in 2020 has a very good shot of winning statewide, especially if they’re a Republican.
The county itself is a bellwether of the swing state because its demographics do a decent job of mimicking Iowa as a whole. Its political geography also resembles the state as a whole. Heavily GOP rural communities, a moderately conservative tourist town in Clear Lake, and the midsize city of Mason City. Mason City is Democratic-leaning and eats up over half of the county’s population.
Fred Hubbell’s strength within Mason City allowed him to make a good run at winning Cerro Gordo County overall. But Reynolds’s strength in Clear Lake and the rurals combined to tip the scales in her favor. All told, Cerro Gordo is an essential bellwether county for both Biden and Greenfield. They likely need to shoot for about a 2-3% win in Cerro Gordo to feel good about turning Iowa blue.
- Race: 97.5% white, 0.7% black, 0.4% Asian, 1.7% Hispanic (of any race)
- Population: 9,187
- State Vote Share: >1%
- Education: 90.3% HS degree or higher, 14.9% bachelor’s degree or higher
- Median Income: $52,742
Now we come to Howard County, a much blogged about county among elections obsessives like your author. It has the distinction of being the only county in America to vote for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016 by at least 20%. Its massive, violent swing towards the GOP in ‘16 made it an object of fascination within the elections community going into 2018.
The result delighted Republicans and disappointed Democrats: Howard County voted for Reynolds by over 17 points. Though Hubbell gained on Clinton’s margin by four points, it was less than the 6+% increase statewide. Those who thought Howard could return to solidly Democratic territory were sorely mistaken. Even Rob Sand (D), who showed immense strength in Obama-Trump areas, lost Howard County by six points.
Howard County is included because its trends reflect what is happening in much of the state, except on steroids. The map shows how red the county was in 2018 and the demographics give lots of hints as to why it’s now a Republican county.
With under 10,000 residents, there are no real urban or suburban areas. Instead, it’s a remarkably rural county. It’s also whiter than a can of whipped cream, clocking in at 97.5% white. Combine that with only 15% of residents having at least a bachelor’s degree and this is the kind of area that is ripe for a realignment in the Trump era.
If Donald Trump or Joni Ernst win in Iowa again, it will be because of places like Howard County. There are lots of areas like this in Iowa, though Howard is the most extreme example. There may not be enough Polks to offset the realignment of rural communities.
However, it’s again important to note that the margin matters even in red areas. If Biden and Greenfield can keep Howard County to 2018 levels, that’s a good sign for their statewide prospects. Obviously they’d like to get within 15%, but that may not be necessary for a statewide win. Howard County is becoming inelastically red, so there may not be many winnable votes for Democrats there even in good years. Merely not getting blown out by 21% like Hillary Clinton may be enough.
The Bottom Line
Iowa is a swing state with a lot of crosscurrents and conflicting trends. It’s impossible to deny that the Hawkeye State is trending red, but it is still competitive enough that Democrats could win it in a good year. Biden leads Trump by around 7-8 points nationally and is running neck-and-neck with the incumbent in Iowa polls. In the Senate race, Greenfield and Ernst are running an extremely tight campaign, with the most recent Monmouth Poll showing the two close in both high and low-turnout scenarios. While the long-term trends are good for the GOP in Iowa, the immediate realities mean that Democrats can carry the state this November.
So based on these five counties, what does a Democratic win in Iowa look like? For one, it requires strong performances in the Des Moines area, both in Polk County and also the other wealthy suburbs in neighboring Dallas County. That area is one of the few places in the state where trends are positive for Democrats. They have to run up the score there.
Then they need solid showings in medium counties with slight Democratic leans, places like Scott County. Similar areas include neighboring Clinton County, as well as Dubuque County further north on the Mississippi River.
Lastly, they need to stop the bleeding in the rural areas. Biden and Greenfield shouldn’t expect to flip places like Howard County back, but they do need to at least perform more or less in-line with Fred Hubbell. If they do that, surge in the more educated and urban counties, and run slightly ahead in the midsize counties, they probably eke out a narrow statewide victory.
For Republicans, the formula is pretty simple. Don’t get absolutely slaughtered in the Des Moines area, and focus on stripping away more votes in GOP trending areas. Kim Reynolds laid a path for GOP victories even in good Democratic years, and simply replicating what she accomplished is a good blueprint for team red.
The five counties in this article paint a clear picture of the environment and trends: Iowa looks to be a competitive swing state this fall.