When you read as much political news and commentary as I do, headlines with questions in them often provoke a knee-jerk reaction: I have to answer them! That was true when I ran across Jim Geraghty’s National Review article headlined: “What’s the Secret of Trump’s Success in Iowa?”
“Race and education,” I said aloud as I stared at the screen.
I was thinking of the fact that Iowa, once a classic blue-leaning battleground state (it went for Obama handily in 2008 and 2012), is moving toward the GOP and particularly Trump because of its high concentration of conservative white working-class voters and its small minority population. To put it another way, Democrats in both presidential and state elections have had to rely in Iowa (as in other Upper Midwestern states) on winning a relatively high percentage of the white vote. The “Obama Coalition” in its full glory just doesn’t exist there. And as Democratic support among white voters — especially evangelicals, and especially non-college-educated people — has gradually eroded, it has gradually made Iowa more hospitable to Republicans, who won a very big midterm victory in the state in 2014.
Donald Trump with his very blunt appeal to white working-class voters is a custom-made candidate for Iowa in a general election, even if he was not the favorite candidate of Republicans themselves in the caucuses.
I say all this by way of introducing the odd fact that Geraghty answered his own question about Iowa without mentioning race or education. In his account, it was all about Republican unity, and rising levels of enthusiasm bred by the 2014 results and high caucus turnout.
Maybe this approach was literally an oversight: Geraghty (a fine political reporter, best as I can tell) could not see those black and brown folk who are not there in Iowa.
The non-demographic factors he cited are perfectly legitimate, if not necessarily all that compelling — your party does not get bonus points at the polls for either unity or enthusiasm. But I’d go him one better in arguing for a Republican organizational advantage in the state that could translate into votes. For one thing, governor-for-life Terry Branstad is sure to keep the state GOP revved up this fall because his son, an ethanol lobbyist, is running Trump’s campaign in the state. For another, Iowa Republicans are disproportionately affiliated with Christian conservative advocacy groups that have decisively cast their lot with Trump; it’s a different landscape from, say, Wisconsin, where a lot of vocal conservatives are sitting on their hands. And perhaps most important, Iowa Republicans want to make sure that if Trump wins he forgives the state that nearly wrecked his nomination contest, and doesn’t try to remove the First-in-the-Nation status of the caucuses. Iowans are extremely touchy about that, you see.
But if demographics don’t explain everything, you cannot understand anything without them. None of the stuff Geraghty writes about can really explain why Iowa is more likely to go for Trump than North Carolina — and will probably remain Republican-leaning for the immediate future. Its electorate is too white with too few sheepskins on the wall to keep voting Democratic in the culturally and racially polarized atmosphere now characterizing our politics. That’s Trump’s “secret.”