...and why our six Electoral College votes
by James Strohman
Iowa is one of eight states that have become
the center of the political universe. As one
of the coveted battleground states in the upcoming
general election, the Obama and Romney campaigns
are seeking Iowa’s six Electoral College votes
on their way to the magic number of 270.
For most of its history, Iowa could be counted
upon for support by Republican presidential
candidates. The state has voted for the GOP
candidate in 30 of the 41 presidential races
in Iowa. But Democrats have won five of the
last six elections, and the state is now considered
fair game for either political party — earning
Iowa “battleground state” status.
The shift in Iowa has occurred for several reasons
including demographic changes: Iowans are migrating
from rural to urban communities and increasing
memberships in public employee unions; the enduring
effects of the farm crisis of the 1980s diminished
longstanding Republican strengths in agricultural
communities; changes to Iowa law have increased
voter registration and absentee voting opportunities
for Democrats; and the Iowa Caucus process built
local party organizations and increased turnout,
especially by the Democratic party.
In some respects, Iowa had been an even bigger
player in presidential politics. The state used
to have 13 Electoral College votes until 1928
when it experienced a steady decline in that
number to the six votes the state will muster
in the 2012 election. Yet those six votes are
highly sought, as the political parties crunch
the numbers in an effort to reach 270. And,
after the cliff-hanger 2000 election featuring
George W. Bush and Al Gore, no battleground
state — regardless of the number of electoral
votes — can afford to be overlooked.
A Republican precedence
Iowa became a state on Dec. 28, 1846, and voted
in its first presidential election in 1848.
While the Whig Party’s Zachery Taylor won the
national election, Democrat Lewis Cass won the
four electoral votes in Iowa. Cass secured 11,238
votes to Taylor’s 9,930, with the Free Soil
Party’s Martin Van Buren collecting 1,103. Cass,
along with Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, was
the chief advocate for the “Doctrine of Popular
Sovereignty,” which argued that slavery should
be determined by voters in each territory rather
than by Congress. It caused a rift in the Democratic
Party and led to the short-lived Free Soil Party.
Van Buren had already been the eighth U.S. president.
He was the first president to be born a U.S.
citizen but the only president not to speak
English as his first language, instead preferring
Dutch. The Free Soil Party only survived six
Taylor was the last U.S. president to own slaves.
“Old Rough and Ready” served 40 years in the
military with service in the War of 1812, the
Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War and
the Mexican-American War. He died 16 months
into his term, making his the third shortest
tenure of any president.
Whichever side they were on, Iowans seemed fond
enough of the 1848 candidates to name counties
after all three.
It wasn’t until 1856 that the Republican Party
had a national ticket, and Iowans voted for
the GOP right from the start, backing John Fremont
over the Democratic victor James Buchanan. Throughout
the next 124 years, from the 1860 election of
Abraham Lincoln until the re-election of Ronald
Regan in 1984, Iowans would side nearly exclusively
with Republican presidential candidates, voting
for the GOP in 27 of 32 races — a remarkable
feat for one party.
The five times Iowans supported a Democrat were
Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Franklin Roosevelt in
1932 and 1936, Harry Truman in 1948 and Lyndon
Johnson in 1964. Wilson likely won Iowa because
Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and Republican
Howard Taft split the GOP vote. Iowans did not
back Wilson for re-election in 1916. And, while
Iowans sided with FDR during the depths of the
Great Depression, they would not support him
for his third or fourth terms. Truman was from
neighboring Missouri and succeeded a president
who died in office, as did Johnson in the landslide
election following the 1963 assassination of
Iowans had always been solid Republican voters,
even going against the national grain eight
times to pick losing Republicans over Democrats;
Fremont over Buchanan in 1856;
James Blaine over Grover Cleveland in 1884;
Benjamin Harrison over Cleveland in 1892;
Charles Hughes over Wilson in 1916;
Wendell Willkie over FDR in1940;
Thomas Dewey over Roosevelt in 1944;
Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in 1960; and
Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976.
During those 124 years, Iowans voted for the
Republican nominee by an average of five more
percentage points than the national results.
Demographics shift to Democratic
In the decade that Iowa became a state, only
5 percent of Iowans were considered to be living
in urban areas. That number has steadily climbed,
hitting 25 percent in 1900, 47 percent in 1950,
61 percent in 2000 and stands today at 64 percent.
Iowa has become more urbanized. Typically, urban
centers increase Democratic votes, as more union
members and concentrations of minorities and
immigrants sway to the Democratic Party. While
many national industries have declined, Iowa
has maintained a strong manufacturing base,
which has helped Democratic presidential candidates.
In addition, the increase of public employees
in state and local governments has resulted
in a corresponding rise in public sector union
membership. Both AFSCME (the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees), which
represents more than 40,000 workers, and ISEA
(the Iowa State Education Association) with
34,000 members, support Democratic presidential
candidates, providing readymade votes and workers
who help increase turnout.
Farm crisis of the 1980s
The farm crisis of the mid-1980s hit rural
Iowa hard and took a toll on the national Republican
Party’s ability to take the state for granted,
forever changing the landscape of Iowa. Iowa
farm families were losing credit, assets and
land, and many faced foreclosure. Many of the
state’s rural constituents began to hold the
national Republicans at fault for appearing
insensitive to the rural economic collapse.
Some believed President Reagan’s administration
was not doing enough to help protect farmers
from losses or assist the region by boosting
agricultural prices and exports.
Iowans responded by voting for Democratic presidential
candidates. In 1984, as Reagan won national
re-election by an 18-point margin, his Iowa
margin lagged far behind at only 7.4 percent.
In 1988, Reagan’s Vice-President, George H.W.
Bush, won the national election by 7.7 percent
but lost Iowa by more than 10 percent. Bush
was the first elected Republican president in
U.S. history to win the national election while
losing the state of Iowa.
The farm crisis caused a big shift in Iowa’s
presidential landscape. Iowa was suddenly up
for grabs. As the state emerged from the farm
crisis, Democrat Bill Clinton carried Iowa in
1992 and 1996. Both the 2000 and 2004 elections
in Iowa were decided by razor-thin margins of
less than 1 percent of the vote, with both parties
chalking up a victory.
As Democrats gained seats in the state legislature
and finally won the governor’s office in 1998
for the first time in 30 years, they began to
push for expanded voter registration and absentee
balloting. Iowa is now just one of nine states
that allow same-day voter registration, which
typically favors Democratic turnout, as lower-income
voters, non-home owners, immigrants and young
voters often have not been previously registered.
Absentee balloting, which had been infrequent
and restricted to certain specific situations,
has now become commonplace. In the 2004 presidential
election, Iowa Democrats cast 52,570 more absentee
votes than Republicans. In the 2008 election
that sent Barack Obama to the White House, that
number grew to 93,118, which represented more
than 11 percent of Obama’s vote total.
But Republicans are mounting a counterattack
through increased voter registration efforts
and have recently overtaken the Democrats in
party registrants for the first time since 2006.
Today there are 620,584 registered Republicans
to 598,985 Democrats with another 659,838 Iowans
registered as no-party.
The Iowa Caucus process has also played an
important role in changing the political landscape
in Iowa. Both parties have raised a cadre of
young organizers and political activists who
help keep the presidential races tight.
But Democrats especially have taken advantage
of the caucuses to increase voter bases, organizing
groups such as labor unions, peace and environmental
activists, women, students and younger voters,
gay and lesbian groups and minorities. And the
Democratic Party has successfully made use of
the caucus process to build stronger local organizations
which tend to produce higher numbers of absentee
voters and workers for the fall campaign.
Outlook for Iowa
There are new factors that may affect the future
in Iowa. Most important are the consequences
of the 2010 United States Supreme Court rulings
in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
(FEC) and SpeechNow.org v. FEC. Both have opened
a new chapter in American politics with the
influence of unlimited amounts of money into
campaigns. Iowans are literally seeing the effect
with a continuous onslaught of television advertisements.
Both parties have opportunities and challenges.
Democrats can remain optimistic as urban centers
continue to grow, but the union beat-down that
occurred with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s
recent recall election raises the question of
whether the political strength of public sector
unions is on the decline.
Republicans have new energy from the increase
in libertarian voters, tea-party activists and
evangelicals opposed to same-sex marriage. Yet
that growth is proving to be divisive within
the Iowa GOP, and solidifying these groups behind
a Republican nominee may prove to be a challenge.
The GOP continues to have significant problems
with new Hispanic voters and women, highlighted
by the recent controversy surrounding Missouri
Congressman Todd Akins’ comments on abortion.
The past quarter-century has given Iowa the
unique status as the state that both begins
the presidential election contest and that also
has a say in the finish. This fall’s national
race is still a toss-up, the Iowa result looks
to be close, and Iowa appears poised to remain
politically competitive in presidential politics
for the foreseeable future. CV
James Strohman is a political science lecturer
at Iowa State University and writes about Iowa
government and politics. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
polling data and past election results, there
are just 17 states in play in the 2012 election.
President Obama is leaning toward victories
in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and
Pennsylvania, and Gov. Romney is closer to carrying
the states of Arizona, Indiana, Missouri and
North Carolina. That leaves Iowa and seven other
states holding the key to the election outcome
with their combined 95 Electoral College votes.
Here’s a look at the other key states:
Colorado – nine electoral votes
Since the LBJ landslide in 1964, Democrats
have only carried the state twice with Bill
Clinton defeating George Bush in 1992 (likely
due to Ross Perot draining support from President
Bush) and Obama besting McCain in 2008 after
Democrats targeted the state and held their
national nominating convention in Denver, Colo.
Still, Rocky Mountain voters have strong anti-government
tendencies, and Obama’s lead is just under 1
percent in aggregate polls.
Florida – 29 electoral votes
The last three presidential elections in Florida
have all been decided by less than 5 percent
of the vote. Republicans enjoy large majorities
in the state legislature and hold nearly all
statewide offices, but Democrats have countered
by turning out their base in Broward and Palm
Beach counties. The GOP is focused on turning
out voters tired of the economic and foreclosure
crises, while the Democrats are pushing for
new Hispanic and Cuban voters. Obama won the
state by a mere 3 percent in 2008, and Romney
currently has his best lead there of all the
New Hampshire – four electoral votes
Having governed in neighboring Massachusetts,
Romney is a bit of a favorite son in New Hampshire
having won the primary in 2012 and finishing
second to eventual nominee John McCain in 2008.
While Republicans easily control the state legislature,
Democrats have been competitive in presidential
contests, with Obama winning by nearly 10 percent
in 2008. Recent polls indicate that margin has
been cut by two-thirds.
Nevada – six electoral votes
The Democratic Party has outworked the GOP
in turning out its base in the state, where
Obama won by a dozen points last time. But Nevada
has been especially hard hit by the recession
with a string of home foreclosures which could
take its toll on the president. But, despite
the highest unemployment rate in the nation
at 12 percent, Obama still has a slim lead in
Ohio – 18 electoral votes
Voters in the Buckeye State have picked the
presidential winner correctly each time since
1960, and no Republican has ever been elected
president without carrying Ohio. With 18 electoral
votes, this is likely a must-win in order for
Romney to reach 270. Obama is clinging to a
very small lead in local polls, and the importance
of the state is evidenced by the fact that both
candidates are visiting there on a weekly basis.
Virginia – 13 electoral votes
Until Obama’s 2008 victory, Republican presidential
candidates had won 10 straight elections dating
back to 1968. But demographic shifts, particularly
in the northern part of the state — home of
many federal workers — have helped transform
Virginia into the newest battleground center.
This is another state where Obama holds the
narrowest of leads.
Wisconsin – 10 electoral votes
Democratic presidential candidates have carried
the state from 1988 to 2008 with several close
races. But the battle over the recall of Gov.
Walker has left the state politically-charged
and made this fall’s contest one of the more
difficult to predict. Many Democrats were upset
that the president sat on the sidelines during
the recall. The addition of local Congressman
Paul Ryan to the national ticket has the polls
shifting and could swing the state to the GOP
column. Some Republicans believe there is a
silent majority in states like Wisconsin which
will propel Romney to victory nationwide — the
same type of majority that turned Walker’s supposed
close recall race into a relatively easy victory.
Title of graph:
Percent of Iowans living in urban areas since
FACT: Today Iowa has: 620,584 registered Republicans,
598,985 registered Democrats and 659,838 registered
as no party.
FACT: George H.W. Bush was the first elected
Republican president in U.S. history to win
the national election while losing the state