Do you remember the Iowa caucuses back in January? Honestly, we hope you don’t, after the mess we made of them. But it’s strange to think that delayed voting results once seemed so politically consequential, given all that has happened since. As in the rest of the country, the political environment here in Iowa and the greater Midwest has been volatile, though with its share of local variations, and there is plenty of uncertainty heading into the fall elections.
Over the last several decades, Iowa has been a classic purple state, voting for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates even as the two parties split or take turns holding congressional seats, the state legislature, and the governor’s mansion. But starting in Barack Obama’s second term, the state seemed to be trending decidedly more Republican. In 2014, the GOP won three of the state’s four U.S. House seats; Joni Ernst replaced the retiring long-tenured Democrat Tom Harkin, joining the even longer-tenured Chuck Grassley to give Republicans both U.S. Senate seats for the first time since the early 1980s. By 2016, the GOP had consolidated “trifecta” control of the governorship and both state legislative houses. And that same year, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won the state by nine points, the same margin candidate Obama had in 2008. While 2018’s blue wave flipped two U.S. House seats back to the Democrats, the GOP held onto the state legislature and Republican Kim Reynolds won her first full term as governor, inheriting the office from Terry Branstad, whom President Trump appointed as U.S. ambassador to China.
This sets up an interesting election season, one likely to get plenty of national attention for a state as small as Iowa. It’s one of the few states that doesn’t gerrymander congressional districts, so U.S. House elections tend to be more competitive here, giving parties prime pick-up opportunities. Sen. Ernst is facing her first re-election and holds a seat that Democrats hope to flip in their quest for a U.S. Senate majority. And, while the state’s six electoral college votes are less likely to make a difference compared to larger swing states, its demographics make it an interesting test case. Iowa’s population is around 88 percent non-Hispanic white, among the highest in the nation. It has the sixth-highest percentage of residents who are white without college degrees—63 percent compared to 41 percent for the country at large. And fully 75 percent of Iowa’s residents live in small metro or rural areas rather than in larger urban centers, compared to 32 percent across the United States. If President Trump in particular, and the GOP more generally, are increasingly relying on votes from whites without a college education outside of larger metro areas, then Iowa is a leading indicator of whether that demographic’s support will increase, hold steady, or decline—a trend with implications for larger states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.