In 2016, Iowa was the model for how Donald Trump won the presidency. In a state jam-packed with white working-class voters whom he won by double digits, and with a state Republican Party united firmly behind him, Trump took Iowa by nearly ten points just four years after Barack Obama’s victory there. The win heralded a sweep across the industrial Midwest and Pennsylvania as the white working class, once the backbone of the Democratic coalition, defected to Trump. His win cemented Republican dominance in the Hawkeye State: Both of its senators and all but one of its representatives in the House were Republicans; the governor was a Republican, as were both chambers of the statehouse. It seemed as if a permanent political realignment in Iowa, and beyond, was at hand.
That’s not the case anymore. Four years later, the state is back to being a presidential toss-up, and control of the Senate may hinge on whether first-term Republican incumbent Joni Ernst can beat back a challenge from Democratic hopeful Theresa Greenfield, who is narrowly ahead in polls. Democrats have cut into Trump’s edge with the white working class while running up the score among voters with college degrees, as the party has done nationally. “If Trump wins Iowa by even two or three points, it means that the demographic cohort that enabled him to pick the electoral lock and sweep Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania won’t be there for him in 2020,” as one Republican strategist in the state put it.
The key difference between Iowa and the rest of the industrial Midwest has always been the lack of a major urban population center full of Democratic voters. Des Moines is no Columbus, Ohio, let alone a Chicago; the state is dotted instead with midsize industrial towns. Without a diverse major urban center, Iowa is over 90 percent white, albeit with a rapidly growing Hispanic population. Still, Democrats were long able to keep pace politically: It was one of the few states in which Obama won the majority of white voters in 2012. Then that began to change.
In a preview of what was to come for the GOP, Iowa was one of the few places in the country where the Republican Establishment wholeheartedly embraced Trump long before he was nominated. In other states, when leading Republican politicians like John Kasich and Paul Ryan played out their tortured feelings about Trump in public, Iowa Republicans did not have the same qualms. This wasn’t because of any fundamental agreement on any of Trump’s key issues. Instead, it was because Trump’s top rival in the Iowa Caucuses, Ted Cruz, was against ethanol subsidies, and Trump (the only real alternative to Cruz) was not.
When it came to the general election, Iowa had what one Republican operative in the state described as “a real and long-term antipathy towards Hillary Clinton.” Not only was she perceived as a status quo candidate with all the scandals and scars of nearly four decades in public life, she didn’t connect with the Democratic base; she finished third in the 2008 Caucuses, after her campaign publicly mused about not campaigning there, and she barely won the 2016 Caucuses. This left Clinton as “a uniquely bad candidate for an Iowa electorate that was pretty grumpy,” in the view of the Republican operative. As J.D. Scholten, the Democratic nominee in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, put it, “A lot of things lined up for that moment. You had the beginnings of a depressed agricultural economy, a distaste for the Democratic nominee, and this larger-than-life figure in Donald Trump.”
The result was dramatic: Blue-collar Democratic counties along the Mississippi River voted for a Republican presidential nominee for the first time in decades. Trump was the first Republican to win the Democratic stronghold of Dubuque County since 1956. And Howard County, a rural area on the Minnesota border, where Obama received nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2012, went for Trump by 20 points. A former high-ranking Democratic official mourned to me even before the 2016 election, “Increasingly, it seems like it is a Republican state, and they just let Democrats live here.”
This trend continued in the 2018 midterms. Although Democrats picked up two congressional seats in swing districts they had previously held, they fell short in a governor’s race they thought they would win in the most favorable political environment in a decade. Increasingly, it seemed as if major statewide victories were out of reach for Democrats. As a result, Democrats weren’t able to land any top recruits for the Senate seat held by Ernst and eventually settled on Theresa Greenfield, who was disqualified from her 2018 congressional bid after it turned out her campaign manager had committed massive petition fraud. Democrats were in such trouble that one of Greenfield’s opponents in the primary touted a poll that had them both losing by 20 points to Ernst, because he thought the details of the poll were more favorable to him.
But one week out from Election Day, everything has changed again. The presidential race is a toss-up, with Biden scheduled to visit Iowa this week. Greenfield is up by a nose against Ernst in what has become one of the most expensive Senate races in history. Part of the change has been a clear reaction to Trump’s presidency from Iowans who voted for him as well as a change from the 2016 political status quo. Rob Sand, who was elected that year as the first Democratic state auditor in half a century, compared Trump’s management of the country to a snow globe: “You want to shake it up, you don’t want to drop it, and he can’t even seem to do anything other than drop it.”
Like the rest of the country, Iowa is suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic with over 1,600 dead. This has been amplified by the impact of the August derecho, an inland hurricane that caused $4 billion in damage to property and crops across the state. “You drive around Cedar Rapids, and there are still houses without roofs,” as one Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely, pointed out. Referring to Biden, the strategist thought it made Iowans even “more sensitive about wanting someone to lead.” Furthermore, the trade war Trump started with China has squeezed demand for the state’s corn and soybeans. The importance of agriculture to Iowa’s economy was underlined by a gaffe Ernst committed in a recent debate when she misstated the price of soybeans, a moment Democrats used to paint the lifelong resident of rural Iowa as being out of touch with voters.
As in states from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, Iowa is also seeing a massive shift toward Democrats in its once deeply Republican suburbs. The subdivisions and cul-de-sacs outside Des Moines have shifted to Democrats, while Trump’s standing in the midsize cities dominated by white working-class voters has eroded, in part because of his own failures but also because Biden is viewed more warmly in the fading factory towns along the Mississippi River than Hillary Clinton ever was.
In another national trend that could help the Democrats running with Biden, Iowa voters are increasingly likely to vote a straight ticket. “There was once a separation between how Iowans viewed their senators, and even their House members, and how they viewed the presidential candidates, and this has disappeared,” said Jeff Link, a veteran Democratic consultant in the state. “Joni Ernst is less popular with Iowa Republicans than Trump. That was never the case with [longtime incumbent senators] Tom Harkin or Chuck Grassley. Grassley was always more well liked than the Bushes, and Harkin was always better liked than Obama or Clinton.”
But while national trends may be influencing Iowa, the state is an indicator for Trump that the GOP’s massive gains among the white working class in 2016 may not be as lasting as once thought. If Trump manages to eke out a reelection, he will probably have to do it without the realignment that his first victory once promised.