It’s Still Difficult to See Trump Losing Iowa in November

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.

Blue-collar shift

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.

Looking ahead

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.

Can a President Preaching Change Lead a Party of Incumbents?

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.

History repeats

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.

Election exceptions

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.