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September 13, 2012
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How Iowa became a presidential battleground state

...and why our six Electoral College votes are key

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 years.

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 President Kennedy.

Iowans had always been solid Republican voters, even going against the national grain eight times to pick losing Republicans over Democrats; including:

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. (See graph.)

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.

Legislative changes

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.

Iowa Caucuses

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 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:


Considering 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 swing states.

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 statewide polls.

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. CV

Title of graph:

Percent of Iowans living in urban areas since inception (1846)

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 of Iowa.

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