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.
The press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was groundbreaking, if difficult to believe.
The chairman of the DCCC said his committee “will not fund any Democratic candidate who initiates attacks against their Republican opponents of an ‘intimate’ personal nature.”
In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman made the same pledge and wrote that the agreement negotiated by the two committee heads “has the potential to truly change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better. We each agreed that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office.”
If you think I just made up those quotes or the bipartisan agreement was the product of my imagination, you are very wrong. That agreement was forged almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1998, by Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who chaired the DCCC, and Georgia Republican John Linder, his counterpart at the NRCC.
But while Frost’s press release was limited to announcing the agreement, Linder used his letter to complain that President Bill Clinton’s allies were trying to discredit his critics: “As we have seen all too often, those whose views differ from the White House often become targets of vicious smears from ‘unnamed sources.’ In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes on the White House’s ‘history of attacking its accusers.’ Kurtz writes, ‘James Carville, the president’s friend, openly declared ‘war’ on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of ‘groping her.’”
Linder was particularly upset about rumors being circulated that decades earlier, Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extramarital affair.
He complained: “The personal smear campaign being waged against my friend Henry Hyde is a shameful attempt by a hateful few to besmirch one of the most distinguished men to ever honor our nation with his service. These attacks are nothing more than a slanderous bid to intimidate the man charged with overseeing possible impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.”
About a week earlier, on Sept. 18, The Washington Post had noted that a “leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: ‘Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They’ve made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this.’”
(That’s the same diGenova who has defended President Donald Trump and almost joined the president’s legal defense team.)
While Trump’s affairs — and denials — are getting plenty of attention, most political campaigns have moved beyond issues of personal, “private” conduct.
Indeed, the focus on the current president’s behavior is less about his “private” behavior than it is about whether he lied, obstructed justice or benefited from the help of a foreign government.
Yes, Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy resigned his seat in the House after it was revealed that he had an affair and urged his mistress to get an abortion, and former judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was sunk after revelations about his past personal behavior.
But Moore won a Republican primary even as rumors swirled about bad behavior years earlier, and GOP Reps. Blake Farenthold of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee have survived personal scandals.
Personal scandals aren’t what they once were in American politics, though the recent attention to inappropriate sexual behavior has to some extent redefined what behavior is disqualifying for an officeholder or political hopeful and what is not.
I wouldn’t expect to see today’s campaign committees again swearing off future attacks, and it should be clear to all that the 1998 Frost-Linder agreement did not, as the Georgia Republican hoped, “change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better.”
Challengers and underdogs must still use multiple lines of attack to have any chance of winning, and White House spokesmen and leakers still try to discredit their opponents and silence their critics.
If anything, the nastiness has increased, even as attacks on a candidate’s private life — “when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office” — seem to have become less important to voters.
The ideological division between the two parties has grown, and new platforms have made it easier for bizarre accusations based on baseless conspiracy theories to enter the political debate and to circulate very publicly — rather than through whispering campaigns of many decades ago.
The result is that the current political environment — and certainly the current White House — has taken us further away from civility, thoughtfulness, and the tenor and tone that Frost and Linder said they hoped to achieve. And that is a great pity.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2018.