Iowa gave Barack Obama a resounding 9.5-point victory over John McCain in 2008. Four years later, Obama’s margin shrunk to 5.8 points against Mitt Romney. But in 2016, something odd happened.
Donald Trump carried Iowa by 9.4 points — a dramatic change in the state’s recent voting behavior and close to the same winning margin as Obama’s eight years earlier.
Iowa had gone Republican before, of course. It voted narrowly for George W. Bush in 2004, and it backed Ronald Reagan twice, in 1980 and 1984.
But Michael Dukakis carried it comfortably in 1988, and Al Gore’s narrow victory in 2000 seemed to suggest Iowa was shifting ever so slightly toward the Democrats. That is what made 2016 so noteworthy.
Did Trump’s solid victory say something about the state’s fundamental partisan bent?
Yes and no. As reporter Paige Godden and the folks at Iowa Starting Line note, a stunning 31 Iowa counties voted twice for Obama but flipped to Trump in 2016. Their statewide map shows the bulk of the shifts occurring in eastern Iowa (and particularly northeast Iowa), areas of traditional Democratic strength.
While much of western Iowa has more in common with Nebraska and South Dakota (including its Republican bent), northeast Iowa has more in common with Minnesota and Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa looks toward Illinois.
The shift in eastern and northeast Iowa in 2016 probably reflects the shift seen elsewhere among working-class voters who were once reliably Democratic but responded enthusiastically to Trump’s message.
According to a 2017 analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Iowa ranked third in the nation with blue-collar jobs as a share of total nonfarm employment in each state. (The group defined blue-collar jobs as those in goods-producing sectors — manufacturing, construction, mining and logging.)
Given that, maybe Iowa’s dramatic shift was not so surprising. But there is more to the story. And it suggests that the state’s swing was not quite as dramatic as it first looked.
Trump drew almost 801,000 votes in Iowa, more than 20,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2008 (823,000 votes) or in 2012 (829,000 votes).
Trump’s showing, in percentage terms, was right in line with those presidential nominees who carried Iowa in the previous five contests.
He drew 51.2 percent, while Obama drew 52 percent in 2012 (against Romney) and 53.9 percent in 2008 (against McCain). George W. Bush drew 49.9 percent in 2004 (against John Kerry) and Gore drew 48.5 percent in 2000 against Bush.
In 1996, Bill Clinton drew 50.3 percent in Iowa against Bob Dole.
So while Trump’s margin of victory was large (9.4 points), especially for a once-hypercompetitive state, the percentage of the vote that he received (51.2 percent) was not particularly noteworthy.
How could that be?
As in a handful of other competitive Midwest and Great Lakes states (see my July 19, 2019, column about Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), Trump’s margin of victory was more a reflection of Hillary Clinton’s weak performance than his own strength.
Clinton drew just 41.7 percent of the vote in Iowa, a showing far worse than those by other recent losing candidates, including Romney (46.2 percent), McCain (44.4 percent), Kerry (49.2 percent) and George W. Bush (48.2 percent).
The only recent losing nominees to draw a lower vote percentage in Iowa than Clinton were Dole (39.9 percent in 1996) and George H.W. Bush (37.3 percent in 1992), both of whom lost a substantial number of votes to independent Ross Perot.
Is this good news for Democrats, putting Iowa back in play in 2020?
Hillary Clinton’s showing in Iowa reflected a unique weakness, and Democrats have a chance to nominate someone who doesn’t have her baggage, which would improve their prospects in the state.
But Trump’s margin was substantial, and Democrats would need to bring out voters who stayed home in 2016 and also win back some former Democrats who backed Trump three years ago. That’s quite a challenge.
So far, there is little reason to believe that more than a trickle of 2016 Trump voters are ready to defect (or, more correctly, return to the Democratic Party), and that, plus the state’s rural Republican voters throughout the state, make it difficult to see Iowa supporting the Democratic nominee in November.
Of course, 2020 certainly should see a much closer race in Iowa if the Democrats nominate someone who can turn out new voters, rally the party base and appeal to swing voters upset with Trump’s language and governing style.
Trump’s margin in Iowa is likely to shrink in November to the mid- or even low-single digits. That means he is still likely to carry the state (barring new developments), but it also means that Iowa is worth keeping an eye on, if only as a test case as to whether Democrats are rallying behind their party’s nominee.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 22, 2020.
For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.
An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.
Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.
Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.
Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.
In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerry, combined for 99 percent of the popular vote.
Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.
Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.
Breaking down the votes
Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.
The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.
The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.
But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.
Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.
While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.
The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.
Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).
Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.
Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.
At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.
Elsewhere, the same thing happened.
In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.
In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.
Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.
But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.
Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.
In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.
Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.
On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.
What it means for 2020
In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.
That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.
On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.
Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.
But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.
While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.
She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.
And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.
I have told this story before, but it is well worth repeating.
Shortly after the Democratic sweep of 2006, I spoke to two Democratic leaders in Congress who told me the same thing. It was all well and good that their party had taken control of both chambers of Congress, they said, but what would matter for 2008 — and the next presidential contest — would be how Democrats behaved over the subsequent two years.
Those veteran Democrats insisted that the party needed to show voters it could govern, that it was made up of thoughtful, generally pragmatic people, not wild-eyed extremists who simply wanted to destroy President George W. Bush and return to their tax-and-spend ways.
Democrats face the same challenge today, but they are endangered by a double-pronged attack that makes their task more difficult than it was in 2006.
A perfect foe
Republicans have launched a campaign to redefine Democrats as a gang of radicals who want to undercut basic American institutions and beliefs.
The GOP line goes something like this: These extremists want to turn the United States into Venezuela and destroy democracy and the free market. As House Republican Conference rapid response director Chris Martin wrote recently in a widely distributed e-mail, Democrats are “obsessed with embracing socialism.”
Republicans understand the limits of President Donald Trump’s appeal, and most recognize he won’t change between now and November 2020. They are stuck with an unpopular, tweet-happy president, so the only way to win a second term for Trump is to increase the Democratic Party’s negatives, thereby making its eventual presidential nominee toxic.
I’ve been writing about congressional elections for almost 40 years, and this approach has been standard strategy for decades. When you have a weak nominee and can’t improve his reputation (favorable rating), you try to destroy his opponent (drive up his or her unfavorable rating).
That’s exactly what Trump and the GOP did in 2016, especially after the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of grabbing women by the genitals exposed him for what he is.
Republican strategists are well aware that Trump has normally fatal liabilities, so they are going to spend the next year demonizing the Democratic Party as extreme.
That way, no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump can paint his opponent with the broad brush of radicalism and socialism.
It’s a good strategy, particularly when it is the only one available. What is the alternative — talking about Trump’s empathy, tolerance, dignity and commitment to inclusiveness?
His supporters don’t need convincing. They adore him. And his critics will never be convinced he is worth supporting. So, the focus of the campaign is voters who don’t like Trump but are worried about what the Democrats might do if they controlled Washington.
Republicans can and will point to the economy to promote the president’s re-election, but 2018 already taught us that a strong economy doesn’t in itself guarantee a winning election for the GOP.
The only strategy available to Republican consultants and talking heads is to make Trump the lesser of two evils — and that means starting off by re-branding the Democratic Party as dangerous, radical, anti-democratic and, yes, evil.
Some free help
The second attack on Democratic leadership’s efforts to prove that the party is ready and able to govern comes from within the Democratic Party itself.
Progressives are angry at Trump and impatient with their own party. They want “real change,” which often means pushing the rhetorical and legislative envelope.
We all understand why progressives are tired of waiting. While Republicans saw Barack Obama as a dangerous radical who wanted to change “our way of life,” liberal Democrats thought him insufficiently aggressive in pushing many issues. Those same Democrats feel as if their agenda has been ignored for years, both by Republicans, who have controlled the White House and/or Congress, and by “establishment” Democrats.
Now, with the country’s demographic profile changing and the Democratic Party no longer dominated by old, white men, party progressives have started to flex their muscles, if only by beginning a conversation about new policy directions.
The mainstream media, fascinated by “firsts,” “isms,” conflicts and personalities, has already been giving outsize coverage to freshman legislators and new voices, as has the conservative media, for very different reasons.
Luckily for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to manage her caucus so far.
But the developing presidential race will make it more difficult for leaders to keep the party together and to encourage all voices to remember that anything they say will give ammunition to the GOP.
There is nothing wrong with the various elements of the Democratic Party discussing, and even arguing, about policy options and priorities over the next year, even though some proposals will play into Trump’s hand and the Republican strategy of defining Democrats as a gang of Nicolás Maduro-loving radicals.
But all Democrats best not forget what those two Democrats I already mentioned told me more than a dozen years ago: If Democrats don’t win the next presidential election, then winning Congress (or the House, in the current case) will turn out to have been a much shallower victory for them than it initially seemed.
Note: An almost identical version of his column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2019.
I have long argued that on the most fundamental level, all elections are choices between continuity and change.
The “in” party needs voters to believe that things are going well — or at least improving — while the “out” party needs to sell its message of change.
On rare occasions, when things are obviously not going well, the in party acknowledges the discontent and responds that the out party is still responsible for the mess or would only make things worse. This leads to the question of how someone like Donald Trump, whose entire message is built on disrupting the status quo and bringing dramatic change, can lead his party as an incumbent.
At least during the campaign leading up to his first midterm election, a new president can argue that while he has brought change, his job isn’t yet done — in part because the opposition has blocked him from achieving everything he promised. In other words, more disruption is necessary. (This argument is much more difficult to make after four or six years in office.)
Trump, of course, has been making that claim for months, complaining about “the swamp” in Washington, Democratic “obstruction,” “arcane rules” that paralyze the Senate (such as the filibuster), the media’s hostility, and even the alleged “deep state,” which some Trump supporters insist is trying to stop the president from succeeding.
Since he entered the presidential race almost three years ago, Trump has argued that only he can jump-start the economy, successfully renegotiate trade agreements and military arrangements, get rid of Obamacare, and protect our borders and achieve immigration reform.
If he comes up short on anything, it can’t possibly be his fault. Other forces must be conspiring against him.
To be sure, Trump is not alone in believing this.
Incumbents always look to blame someone for their failings, and they rarely look in the mirror to find the person at fault. Moreover, this president does have adversaries who are fighting him and his agenda.
Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama used a genteel version of the “blame game” strategy during their first midterms, as has virtually every other sitting president who had a rocky first two years in office.
Reagan and Obama argued that their respective predecessors, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, left them with messes to clean up (stagflation in the case of Carter, and the meltdown of the financial services sector under Bush), and insisted that they had made a good start reviving the economy and strengthening America’s standing in the world.
They had stopped the bleeding, they asserted, and just needed a couple of more years to achieve their goals.
The problem for Trump is that when both Reagan and Obama tried this strategy, it failed miserably.
Republicans lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms even though the party began with a mere 192 seats, and in 2010 Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the chamber. (Two years later, when circumstances improved, both Reagan and Obama were re-elected.)
The 1982 results were particularly noteworthy since there was every reason to believe that Republicans would avoid the midterm jinx that year.
After all, Democrats held a large majority in the House and had controlled the chamber uninterrupted for thirty years. Clearly, there was no quick fix to the combination of inflation, high interest rates, growing unemployment and little economic growth that Reagan inherited, so blaming Carter and his party for the nation’s problems — and thereby minimizing GOP midterm House losses — should have been easy. But it wasn’t.
Bill Clinton’s experience also doesn’t offer much reason for optimism for the GOP. Clinton ran as a candidate of generational change in 1992, but his first midterm was a disaster for House Democrats, who lost 54 seats and the majority in the balloting. Voters apparently didn’t like the kind of change he was delivering.
The other two presidents since Reagan who had to survive “first midterms,” George H.W. Bush in 1990 and George W. Bush in 2002, don’t offer much guidance to Trump. After eight years of Reagan, George H.W. Bush was the candidate of continuity when he ran for president in 1988, and his son was not a “disruptive” force 12 years later.
Moreover, George W. Bush’s first midterm occurred a little more than one year after the 9/11 attacks, which caused voters to value continuity and rally around the White House.
In November 2002, Gallup found roughly equal percentages of registered voters saying they were “satisfied” and “dissatisfied” with the direction of the country. But during the first week of March this year, only 28 percent said they were satisfied, while 68 percent were dissatisfied.
Those numbers demonstrate how different the political environment was in 2002, and how dissatisfied voters are now.
Given that, the question is: As the midterms approach, can Republicans reclaim the banner of disruption (without creating voter fatigue), or is the GOP, which controls the House, the Senate and the White House, automatically the party of continuity, even with Trump in the Oval Office and leading his party?
Right now, the answer doesn’t look like a close call, which is why Trump and the Republicans are in such deep trouble in the fight for the House.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 10, 2018.
One year ago, as Donald Trump was preparing to take the oath of office, Democrats were in disarray. Supporters of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were pointing fingers at each other, the Democratic National Committee was in disgrace, and Democratic voters were demoralized.
Now, Trump has succeeded in doing something extraordinary, something neither Clinton nor House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could do — he has united and energized Democrats.
Moreover, if national polls are accurate, the president has taken his own party to the edge of a political cliff, the 2018 midterm elections.
This has occurred in spite of a growing economy, a booming stock market, a shrinking unemployment rate and tax cuts intended to stimulate even more growth.
While economic dislocations and low wage growth certainly played a role in boosting Trump’s presidential run, it was his view of America that mobilized key voters behind his anti-establishment candidacy.
Trump voters were angry about how the country has changed. They saw liberals encouraging diversity (through same-sex marriage, transgender rights and immigration) at the expense of traditional values, roles and institutions (e.g., traditional religious beliefs and organizations).
Even worse, Republicans were unable to roll back or stop the tide of change. Trump’s cultural populism was an important part of his campaign message, and it continues to underlie his appeal to older, less educated, white voters, particularly those in rural areas.
His anti-elitist message resonated with Americans who regarded diversity and political correctness as threats to their traditions and way of life.
His promise to replace “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” may seem trivial, but it encapsulated an important part of his message and allure, which essentially involved his promise to turn back the clock.
But while those themes certainly struck a chord with conservatives and older voters in 2016, they have also — for a very different reason — now energized the young, people of color and more liberal voters, who see Trump’s America as a threat rather than an ideal.
Like Trump, President Barack Obama’s great appeal was not his issue positions — though, of course, liberal Democrats agreed with him about health care, government spending and foreign policy.
Instead, it was Obama’s vision for the country — diversity, equality, fairness and bipartisan cooperation — that made him so attractive, even to nonideological voters.
While many Americans remain outraged by Trump’s judicial appointments, efforts to repeal the 2010 health care law, support for corporate tax cuts and decision to open up drilling off the nation’s coasts, his critics have been most offended by his vision for America.
Trump’s inauguration address, comments after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and insensitivity toward gays and blacks galvanized liberals, immigrants and the young, many of whom were lukewarm about Clinton’s candidacy and failed to vote during the Obama midterms in 2010 and 2014.
This new energy produced an electorate in Virginia in 2017 that looked significantly more like the national electorates of 2008 and 2012 than those of 2010 or 2016.
That is politically dangerous for the GOP, as it was in 2006, when a Democratic electoral wave swept the country.
Trump and congressional Republicans began this election cycle with little room for error heading into the midterms. After all, Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 points in 2016 even though key Democratic demographic groups underperformed.
But since his election, Trump has made little effort, either substantively or symbolically, to reach out to voters outside his political base.
Yes, his base is loyal, but it remains dangerously small.
The trouble for Trump and his party is that last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election saw strong turnout among younger voters (ages 18-29 and 30-44) and nonwhites.
The surge was particularly strong in suburban areas, where white women with a college degree helped Democrat Ralph Northam sweep to an unexpectedly strong victory.
Trump’s voters went to the polls and supported Republican Ed Gillespie, but he was crushed by almost 9 points by a larger-than-expected Democratic turnout.
The outcome in Virginia revealed the long-term problem for Republicans in general and Trump in particular: the America of Donald Trump isn’t one that is inclusive and welcoming.
It is an America tied to cultural values and behaviors of the 1950s, not the 21st century. That has proved appealing to older white voters, evangelicals, the less educated and those living in rural America, but not so to the rest of the country.
Other elections in 2017 and most national polls have also shown greater Democratic energy and opposition to the president, even with the nation’s good economic numbers.
The Democrats don’t have Obama at the top of the ticket, but they have someone almost as good — Donald Trump.
So, while the president can (and inevitably will) brag about some of his accomplishments, perhaps his greatest accomplishment may be his success in reviving and revitalizing the Democratic Party. And for that, Democrats should thank him.
This column was originally published by Roll Call on January 10, 2018.