The Decline and Fall of Iowa Democrats

Stormy weather afflicts a major 2021 Democratic fundraiser in Des Moines. Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Not so very long ago, Iowa was a highly competitive battleground state in which two very professionalized political parties slugged it out on a fairly even playing field, while sharing the spotlight (and the resources) associated with holding the first in the nation caucuses every four years. Iowa Democrats in particular seemed to punch above their weight, given the state’s agrarian heritage and small minority population. From 1988 through 2012, Democrats won six of seven presidential elections in Iowa, and only lost in 2004 by a whisker. In his successful elections in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama did better in Iowa than he did nationally. Democrats controlled one of two U.S. Senate seats from Iowa for the three decades of Tom Harkin’s time in office, and held the governorship from 1999 to 2011.

But Iowa Democrats have had a hard time since then, thanks to a combination of demographics and human error – probably the former more than the latter.

Things really started falling apart for Iowa Democrats in 2014 when Harkin retired from the Senate; Democrats lost their grip on his seat, plus a House seat, and suffering a 21-point beating in the gubernatorial race. At the time, it was hard to figure out if the problem was unforced candidate errors or something more fundamental. Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley was in a close race with a very right-wing Joni Ernst when video leaked of Braley telling a Texas trial lawyer fundraising event that they’d better help him if they didn’t want the Senate to flip, making Republican and “Iowa farmer,” Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. This insult to Iowa and to farmers may have sunk Braley even in a good Democratic year, which it wasn’t.

But the real shocker occurred in 2016, when Donald Trump carried Iowa by an unimaginable nine points, the biggest Republican margin of victory in the state since Ronald Reagan waxed Jimmy Carter in 1980. The GOP also earned a governing trifecta at the state level in 2016 by flipping the state Senate.

In the very good 2018 landscape Iowa Democrats posted something of a comeback by flipping two U.S. House seats by narrow margins, but its well-regarded and heavily financed gubernatorial nominee, Fred Hubbell, lost despite leading incumbent Kim Reynolds in most polls. Then in 2020, Iowa reverted to its now-established Republican status quo ante, with Trump carrying the state by eight points, and Democrats losing another Senate race, along with two U.S. House seats.

Amid this decline in Iowa Democrats’ electoral fortunes, the Democratic presidential Caucus was undergoing big problems as well. In 2016 a photo finish between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders led to loud complaints over Iowa’s arcane results formulation. That led, in turn, to national party mandates that Iowa report its 2020 results in two additional ways, which contributed heavily to the famous 2020 Caucus meltdown, in which the state party could not report results at all on Caucus night.

So now Democratic misfortunes are mutually reinforcing, with the national party threatening to deny Iowa its traditional status as a calendar-protected “early state” because it’s not a particularly good state for the Donkey Party, and Iowa Democrats struggling even more electorally. The latest disaster occurred on Sunday when former congresswoman Abby Finkenauer – the overwhelming favorite to challenge that “Iowa farmer,” Chuck Grassley, who is running for his eighth Senate term at the age of 88 – was knocked off the primary ballot by a state judge due to faulty signatures on her petition for candidacy (she is appealing the decision). This embarrassing sign of apparent campaign incompetence brought back memories of a similar occurrence in 2018 that kept a promising Democratic U.S. House candidate off the ballot.

In the other big statewide race on the ballot this year, Kim Reynolds’ bid for a third term as governor, a March Iowa Poll from renowned pollster Ann Selzer showed Democrat Deidre DeJear trailing the incumbent by a hardly insurmountable 43-51 margin. But DeJear, the rare Black Iowa pol who ran a credible if losing campaign for secretary of State in 2018, is badly underfunded and has low name ID.

So what’s the basic problem bedevilling Iowa Democrats? While you can blame this or that setback or mistake, the underlying issue is demographic, as I noted in 2016, when Trump was leading handily in all the Iowa polls:

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 …

Donald Trump with his very blunt appeal to white working-class voters is a custom-made candidate for Iowa in a general election.

And so it has remained, despite the efforts of so many talented and dedicated Democrats in a state aspiring political operatives used to flock to in order to make their bones in the Caucuses. It’s a trend afflicting other Heartland states such as Indiana, which was carried by Obama in 2008 and had two Democratic senators in the 2010s. No Hoosier Democrat has won statewide in the last decade, and Republicans have won the last three presidential contests there by double digits. Sometimes you can overcome the fundamentals, but sometimes they are just overwhelming.

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The Decline and Fall of Iowa Democrats