Swingers: Iowa

I covered a left-leaning swing state with a very homogeneous population last, now let’s look at a state that has come to define political warfare and launched many a political career – the thermostat of the nation and one of the swingiest of the swing states – Iowa.  Their primaries frequently select the most extreme of candidates (Obama over Biden and Clinton, Santorum over Romney, Huckabee over Romney and McCain, Kerry holding on barely over hot youngsters Edwards and Dean, who each flamed out for different reasons not related to a lack of Iowa enthusiasm, etc) and yet, county by county, this is not a land of extremes, as you’ll see.  No…it turns out that populism is dangerous, no matter what side of the social and political spectrum from which it emanates – tea-party demagogues like Michelle Bachmann (who faded due to bad campaign organization in Iowa, but was initially enormously popular) and evangelicals like Pat Buchanon and Bob Huckabee on the right, and extreme progressives and socialists like Obama and Edwards on the left equally pursue as their primary campaign strategy the ethos that they aren’t even really politicians – they’re one of us, hard working, ordinary and simple, with simple, hopeful ideas about serving the interests of the masses.  And Iowans love populists. They frequently don’t even realize that the people they’re choosing as their candidate are as extreme as they are – all they want is someone who went to all 99 counties and talked with them face to face.

But, as a group, Iowans are pragmatists in their daily lives and idealists in politics – go figure.  Let’s look at those 99 counties and see what picture they paint.

Major Population Centers:

  1. Sioux City (3% of state vote)
  2. Des Moines (14% of state vote)
  3. Cedar Rapids/Iowa City (~7.5% of the state vote)
  4. Dubuque (3% of the state vote)
  5. Davenport (5.5% of the state vote)

Slant grouping by county: average of the last three cycles
Slant grouping by county: 2008 election

The most representative county in the state is located between the states three eastern cities of Davenport, Dubuque and Cedar Rapids…its population is not large, but the more conservative suburbs of these left-leaning Iowa cities reflect a balance between union and government influence and rural and traditional values that pull at the state’s voters.  Cedar County is an ideal spot to watch on election night and you’ll have their votes before you have full votes from the cities…it should tell you something about republican turnout.

Obama’s statewide effort at early voting turnout paid big dividends in all parts of the state.  He didn’t just attack a specific region he thought might be vulnerable as he did in Colorado or New Mexico – his strategy was flawless.  Realizing that the entire state lacks severe biases and that the demographics cannot be used as a wedge in this region, his goal appeared to be to goose democrat turnout by a few points everywhere, shaving far-right counties into leaners, swing counties into left-tilters and urban areas into firm liberal hands.  This can be seen when we look at the slant group averages by cycle (as can the democrat turnout boost):

Turnout percentage by county slant grouping (from three-cycle averages) for 2000, 2004, and 2008 respectively:

1 6.63% 6.50% 6.33%
2 16.83% 16.56% 16.70%
3 22.96% 22.37% 21.79%
4 48.10% 48.83% 49.09%
5 5.48% 5.74% 6.09%

A boost in turnout in the D-Triangle (what locals call the region between Des Moines, Davenport and Dubuque) can be seen – note carefully that the lower percentages of the vote in swing and conservative counties were not caused by lesser turnout but by increased liberal turnout.

Slant ratios for the same groups for the last three cycles:

31.10% 29.66% 35.66%
44.05% 41.32% 47.71%
48.74% 48.51% 52.45%
54.22% 53.76% 59.06%
62.71% 63.71% 69.05%

We see a 4-6 point liberal swing in every grouping in 2008…those changes are not indicative of a general leftward trend in Iowa – Obama just got people to the polls better than most candidates and swayed independents.  The question is – will that tend continue?  Well we do have some information on that already. Early voting is well underway in Iowa and over 300,000 ballots had been requested as of October 12th (out of about 1.5 million votes normally cast in the state)…Democrats normally do well with early voting in Iowa, but Obama has taken that to a whole new level.  In 2008, at about this stage in the voting process, Obama had a party registration advantage of 56% D / 26% R / 18% I…this year, the requested ballots come out 47% D / 30% R / 23% I and independents are breaking for Romney by 5-8 points in all of the recent polls conducted in Iowa.  So…with the election about 20% completed, Romney is likely down by 13-15 points…but McCain was utterly BURIED by this time and he lost the state only by about 10 points.  So…there’s good reason to believe that Romney will be a bit more competitive here.  I am leaning toward projecting this state for Obama, but with momentum favoring Romney, that projection was more likely a couple of weeks ago.

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