Until 2014 Republicans had struggled in Iowa. Only once in the last six Presidential elections (2004) did GOP Presidential contenders win the state. Even then, Bush carried the state by the narrowest of margins (10,000 votes). Despite GOP struggles in the state presidentially the local GOP has traditionally been strong. Between 1968 and 2000 the state continuously reelected GOP Governors Robert Ray and Terry Branstad. The Congressional delegation has always been fairly closely divided and Senator Chuck Grassley (R) and former Senator Tom Harkin (D) have dominated the state’s politics since the 80’s.
From 2006 and 2008 the state swung heavily Democratic. Obama carried the state by 9% in 2008 and Democrats captured strong legislative majorities. Then 2010 hit. Former GOP Governor Terry Branstad carried the state by 11% over incumbent Chet Culver. Republicans did not make inroads in the state’s Congressional delegation but they did manage to retake the state House. In 2012, Obama carried the state by half of his 2008 margin. True to its swing nature though the state swung back to the GOP in 2014 with the election of two new GOP Congressmen and choosing state senator Joni Ernst (R) to take over Harkin’s Senate seat.
Iowa can essentially be divided into four political regions. The heavily rural West of the state is home to many evangelicals and the GOP base in the state. The South-Central region is dominated by heavily Democratic Polk County but some conservative suburbs. The North-Central is probably the swingiest region of the state while the Southeast is home to heavily Democratic Johnson County. These four regions can swing one way or the other if the stars align but not since 1984 have they done so in a Presidential election towards the GOP.
It’s tempting to argue the GOP is chasing another “white whale.” They might be better served going after Pennsylvania or Wisconsin which have consistently shown more inching towards the GOP. But there are reasons for the GOP to believe 2016 is the year they finally take Iowa again. First, the 2014 elections.
GOP wins in 2010 were across the board but the party’s political coalitions did not shift. Urban voters went Democratic and suburban and rural voters leaned Republican. Meanwhile, the coveted blue-collar vote was split. In 2012, Obama actually came close to winning these voters. In both the Gubernatorial and Senatorial elections in 2014 the bottom fell out for the Democratic party. Their traditional advantage among women disappeared, they lost all age groups but 18-29 year olds, and most worrisome for the party is their inroads among blue-collar voters disappeared.
Ernst carried these voters by both income and education level. She won HS graduates 57%-42% and voters with some college 52%-44%. Ernst carried every income bracket except those below $30K. Brandstad’s margins were even larger due to his strong stature in the state and the benefit of running against a no-name Democrat.
Republicans have another reason to be optimistic, voter registration numbers. The GOP significantly outhustled Democrats in 2014 and as of mid June of this year the GOP enjoyed a 25,000 vote advantage. However, Independents were the largest group with over 700,000 registrations and while they lean GOP in midterms they have not gone Republican since Bush in 2004. Outside groups are sure to invest heavily in voter registration efforts, further aiding the GOP’s efforts.
Iowa has leaned Democratic in Presidential elections. But 2016 could be the year that changes.