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.
There is no need to speculate about President Donald Trump’s strategy for reelection. He plans to — and needs to — destroy his general election opponent.
That’s the only way an incumbent president with a job approval rating in the low 40s and sitting at 40 percent in hypothetical ballot tests can possibly win.
Trump loves the combat and the name-calling. It wouldn’t matter if the Democrats nominated Mother Teresa (were she still alive). Trump would mock her, give her a demeaning nickname, portray her as selfish and self-centered, and brand her a phony. That’s what Trump does.
But don’t take my word for it. It was his wife, Melania Trump, who told a crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2016, “As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”
“Equal,” as in equally nasty.
Politics can be a rough game. I get it. I’ve been covering campaigns for the last 40 years. No, politics ain’t beanbag.
But in the old days, political dirt was shoveled under cover of darkness, circulated by whispering campaigns or anonymous handouts left on car windshields on Sunday mornings.
Trump has taken negativity to a new level.
He delivers the attacks himself, often during rallies or press events. So whether the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, John Delaney or someone else, you can be sure that Trump and his allies will run the same slash-and-burn campaign they did in 2016.
Something on everyone
There are no flawless candidates this year or any year. Democrats shouldn’t be looking for one.
Obviously, some Democrats are carrying more baggage than others.
Sanders’ embrace of socialism, for example, may earn him points for being frank, but it’s a considerable liability in a general election.
Biden’s son Hunter’s membership on the board of a Ukrainian energy company is also a liability for his father, though not one so serious that it would define the former vice president’s candidacy.
We don’t now know what opposition research Trump has on each of the Democratic candidates, but Democrats would be wise to assume he has something on everyone — and if he doesn’t, he’ll just make something up, as he has done in the past.
He is, after all, trying to muddy the waters so that he wins a chunk of voters who don’t like him but dislike his opponent even more.
Remember, Trump won the 2016 election even though he had worse ratings that Hillary Clinton, according to that year’s exit poll.
Forty-three percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Clinton, compared to 55 percent who saw her unfavorably. Trump’s rating was measurably worse at 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable.
A solid 55 percent of respondents said Clinton had the right temperament to be president, while only 35 percent said the same of Trump. And while 52 percent of those polled said Clinton was “qualified to serve as president,” only 38 percent said Trump was qualified.
Clinton even bested Trump, albeit very narrowly, when it came to honesty and trustworthiness. Only one in three respondents said Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” while 36 percent said that that description applied to Clinton, who was carrying years of political baggage.
Given all of those numbers, Clinton should have won the election comfortably. But she didn’t, in part because many voters didn’t trust her, eight years of Barack Obama produced an anti-Democratic fatigue, and a slice of voters were so frustrated with unfulfilled promises that they took a flier on an outsider they hoped could change the trajectory of the country in a positive way.
Even if many voters had doubts about Trump — even if it was a gamble to vote for someone unqualified and with the wrong temperament — wasn’t it worth the risk, given the alternative?
Four years later
Trump’s problem is that the rhetorical question he asked of black voters in 2016 — “What do you have to lose?” — now has a different answer for many voters (regardless of race) than it did four years ago.
He will continue to run against the establishment, the Deep State, the national media, Obama, Clinton and his eventual Democratic opponent. But unlike 2016, when voters could vote for Trump in the hope that he would become “more presidential” and would “grow” into the office, those voters now see that the exact opposite has occurred.
And while millions of Americans who still support the president may like his political incorrectness and the chaos he produces on a daily basis, some of those 2016 supporters won’t want to stomach another four years of disarray and insanity. It is simply too fatiguing.
So the president has no option but to drive his opponent’s negatives higher. That means attacks on his or her character, judgment, health, integrity, intellect, family members, friends, business associates and personal behavior.
And yes, Trump will brand him or her a socialist who wants open borders and gun confiscation, and who supports closing all houses of worship, destroying the U.S. military, bankrupting the country and letting rapists and murderers run free.
And he’ll probably do all that before the end of September. Just imagine what the last month before Election Day will be like.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 15, 2019.
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.
Michigan is surprisingly relevant in 2020.
The Democratic presidential nominee almost certainly has to carry the state next year to have any chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. And Republicans are eyeing the seat of first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
Democrats must net three Senate seats next November and win the White House to take control of the chamber. That is almost impossible if Republicans swipe two Democratic seats.
Alabama is an obvious GOP target and a likely flip. But there are a handful of other Senate seats that look appealing for Republicans, including Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan.
Trump won only one of those states, Michigan, which puts the state at or near the top of the Republican Senate takeover list.
Last year was a banner year for Michigan Democrats. They won races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the state board of education and the Michigan State board of regents.
Democrats also picked up two U.S. House seats, and while Republicans retained control of both the state Senate and House (largely because Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in their favor), their margins shrunk dramatically.
But some Democrats remain nervous about their positioning in the state, particularly among white working-class voters.
In the 2016 exit poll, nonwhites accounted for 29 percent of all voters nationally but only 25 percent of Michigan voters. White men without a college degree — Trump’s core supporters — constituted 16 percent of voters nationally but 20 percent in Michigan.
Trump carried Michigan 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent in what was widely regarded as a stunning surprise.
Two years later, underdog GOP Senate nominee John James lost his challengeto Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by only 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.
James is running again this cycle, hoping to upset Peters.
For Republicans, these two results demonstrate that Michigan can and will be competitive next year, with both the president and Peters on the ballot.
Numbers tell the story
A more detailed look at Michigan election results, however, demonstrates that the GOP has a steep hill to climb in both contests.
No Republican presidential nominee has drawn a majority of the vote in Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988 (54 percent).
His son, George W. Bush, took 48 percent in 2004 — three-tenths of a point more than Trump — but he still lost the state by 3 points.
In the four presidential elections immediately before 2016, the GOP nominee received 45 percent (2012), 41 percent (2008), 48 percent (2004) and 46 percent (2000).
Given those numbers, Trump’s 47.5 percent does not look so different, except in one way — he won.
Trump’s victory was more about Hillary Clinton’s weaker-than-normal showing rather than his own performance.
The last Republican Senate winner in the state was Spencer Abraham in 1994, when he flipped a Democratic open seat by a comfortable 9 points.
Of course, that was during Bill Clinton’s rocky first midterm election, which produced a Republican wave.
Since then, Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate elections, including Abraham’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2000, when he drew 48 percent while losing to Stabenow.
In the last three Senate contests, the GOP nominee received 46 percent (James in 2018), 41 percent (former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014) and 38 percent (Rep. Peter Hoekstra in 2012).
The 2014 race, during President Barack Obama’s second midterm election, should have been the Republicans’ best chance in recent years to win a Senate seat in Michigan. Instead, Peters ended up winning by 13 points.
The point is clear: Michigan remains a difficult state for the GOP in statewide federal races.
Trump carried the state by a mere 10,704 votes and didn’t come close to winning a majority of the vote.
James’ showing last year was better than the performance of most recent Republican Senate nominees, but that isn’t saying much.
Given all that, and considering Clinton’s relatively casual attention to Michigan three years ago, 2020 will be a challenging test for the GOP in both the presidential and Senate contests.
Democrats took Michigan for granted in 2016 and lost it to Trump. They are not likely to repeat it, though they will need strong turnout among minority and younger voters.
James looks like a credible contender next year. But he’ll need to outperform Trump’s 2016 showing and, like the president, avoid any defections in the suburbs and from white women with a college degree to have any chance of winning.
Michigan could be competitive again next year, but it probably is more likely that the Great Lakes State reverts to its traditionally Democratic bent, as it did in 2018.
Note: This column appeared initially in the June 18, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?
Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?
I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.
Here are a few:
Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?
When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.
But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.
Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?
Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?
Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.
Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.
Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.
But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.
We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.
Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.
I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.
I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.
Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.
Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?
The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.
Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.
Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.
Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.
The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”
A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.
This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.
Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.
And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.
Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.
Is experience an asset or a liability?
Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.
Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.
Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?
Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?
Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.
Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?
If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.
But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.
These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”
In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.