Unlike most Midwestern states Iowa’s political history is particularly unique. The electorate of the state is literally split down the middle between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The state overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and two years later gave the GOP control of the state house, three new state supreme court seats and all statewide executive offices. However, the state did not see one of three Democratic Congressmen lose their reelection bids in 2010.
Iowa has gone back and forth between the political party it has supported for president since 1980. In 1980 and 1984 Iowa backed Reagan for president. In 1988 the state backed Dukakis for president. In 1992 and 1996 it backed Bill Clinton (D). In 2000 the state narrowly went for Democratic candidate Al Gore. In 2004 the state narrowly backed President George Bush. And in 2008 the state overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama. Currently the state has one Democratic Senator, one GOP Senator, two GOP Congressmen and three Democratic Congressmen. It lost a seat to reapportionment in 2011 so at least one Congressmen will be history after 2012.
On the one hand Iowa’s six electoral votes may not appear that important. But as New Hampshire in 2000 (4 electoral votes) showed in a close election every electoral vote counts. Plus most of Iowa’s media market, minus Des Moine is relatively inexpensive to compete in. However to get into the Des Moine media market is incredibly expensive and inefficient because the Des Moine market does not extend outside Iowa.
Iowa’s electorate is a unique mixture of rural evangelicals, suburban moderates and an agricultural union presence throughout the state. All this creates an electorate that could go either way on any given election. In 2008 Democratic registration outnumbered GOP membership by over 100,000. But since then independents have risen by over 50,000 and the GOP has taken a 33,000 voter registration advantage over their partisan rival.
Both Romney and Obama know where their bases are located in the state. Romney needs rural evangelicals in the West of the state and Catholics in the Northeast to turn out. Obama needs the scattered union presence to show up to hold down Romney’s margins in many small counties. Then we get to the Des Moine an Cedar Rapids suburbs. According to 2008 exit polls the election day electorate was was 34% Democratic, 33% Republican and 33% Independent. Both McCain and Obama carried their bases but independents backed Obama 56%-41%. Many of these independents reside in the Des Moine and Cedar Rapid suburbs. While the suburban vote was split 50%-49% it is notable that Obama won the East of the state by 58%-40%. By far the East carries the most votes and Obama ran away with it, in part because of his strength among the urban/suburban vote of Des Moine and Cedar Rapids.
Now flash forward to 2010. In 2010 the GOP romped to victory at the state level but did not win a single new federal office. Democrats ran several strong candidates last cycle, including Roxanne Conlin for Senate and incumbent Governor Chet Culver. Both lost badly. In the Senate race US Senator Chuck Grassley easily won every county except one. In the gubernatorial race Terry Branstad repeated almost the same feat, minus several counties. Exit polls from the Senate race show Grassley won every major group, including young and low income voters. In the more hotly contested gubernatorial race Branstad almost repeated the feat, except he lost low income voters and tied among those age 25-29. Most alarming for Democrats from this election was how suburban voters swung. Branstad won suburban voters 56%-41% and Grassley won over 70% of them. Both Branstad and Grassley won every region in the state except Eastern Iowa (metro Des Moine). Lastly, independents heavily favored both the GOP candidates.
Despite all that however Iowa did not swing wholeheartedly into the arms of the GOP. Democrats maintained a two seat edge in the state senate and all three Democratic congressman, with their districts touching either Des Moine or Cedar Rapids survived.
For the Romney and Obama campaign Iowa presents as much a waste of effort as opportunity. The state’s unemployment is below the national average yet polls show a close race. The electorate is partisanly split. In fact in 2010 the electorate was 35% Republican, 34% Independent and 31% Democratic. Not a huge change from 2008. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns are targeting Iowa. Romney’s camp is playing catch-up organizationally but he is helped because he is well known in the state due to the Iowa Caucuses. Some worry his Mormon beliefs may hurt evangelical turnout but that remains unlikely.
With both bases likely to turn out it will all come down to the Des Moine and Cedar Rapids. Full of independents these areas gave Obama his win in 2008 and the GOP their Senate and gubernatorial victories in 2010. Where these voters will go is hard to say. Will they feel like the statewide economy is recovering and give the president the benefit of the doubt? Or will they give more weight to the struggling national economy and be lured to Romney by his claims of business experience. Over 100 days from the election only one thing is certain. Iowa is up for grabs and looks to be a photo finish once again.