GovernorChet Culver (D)
SenatorsCharles Grassley (R)
Tom Harkin (D)
- 3 D, 2 R
- 1 through 5
As Americans were surging westward in the 1840s, Iowa was filling up with Yankee farmers and German immigrants. Wagon trains headed to the Oregon Trail, and the thousands of Mormons mustered by Brigham Young traveled across Iowa’s rolling hills to Council Bluffs on the Missouri River, and then to points further west. The state was young, and proud of its hundreds of schools and dozens of colleges, sending more than its share of young men back East to fight for the Union. After that war, Iowans built a solid civilization based on farming, farm-machine manufacturing, and meat processing that resisted the blandishments of William Jennings Bryan’s populism and cheap money. Iowa became one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation.
But starting around 1900, Iowa’s model society stopped attracting new transplants. “If you build it, they will come” was the theme from the movie Field of Dreams, set in Iowa. Yet during the 20th century, very few people came. The region’s commercial and financial center remained the railroad hub of Chicago, Iowa’s economy failed to diversify and develop the dense manufacturing base of the Great Lakes states, and its young people started to move east or west to make their fortunes. The state’s population, which increased from 674,000 in 1860 to 2.2 million in 1900, did not reach 3 million until 2008. In 1900, Iowa had 11 congressional districts and California had seven. Now, Iowa has five and California 53. Iowa’s solid Capitol, a memorial to its Civil War dead, its courthouses, and its sturdy but mostly old housing stock give testimony to Iowa’s strengths but also suggest a lack of dynamism. Its great economic achievement has been the development of high-tech, ever more productive, but also less labor-intensive agriculture. Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of pork, corn, and soybeans, yet it remains near the bottom in population growth.
Iowa had a particularly tough time in the 1980s. The number of Iowans whose principal occupation was farming dropped from 86,000 in 1982 to 56,000 in 1997, and the state’s population dropped by 4.7% between 1980 and 1990, down to the 1960 level. However, the 1990s were a big improvement. Its high level of literacy and good work habits produced white-collar and high-tech growth in and around its pleasant small cities, especially Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Even as many old factories closed, it grew by 5.4% in the 1990s. In this decade, the state grew by 1.6% from 2000 to 2007. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack hosted parties for Iowa natives in New York City and Chicago and urged them to come back home. Mexican immigrants moved to small towns with meatpacking plants as well as to Des Moines and the old industrial cities of Sioux City and Waterloo. Jobs and small-town life also attracted Bosnians and Liberians as well as Congolese, Sudanese and Somali refugees. Ethanol has boosted the Iowa economy since 1998, when Republican Sen. Charles Grassley got the ethanol tax credit extended to 2007; by the end of 2007, Iowa was producing almost one-third of the nation’s ethanol, which the renewable fuel industry said generated as many as 96,000 jobs and helped raise corn prices, and therefore farmland prices. Soybean prices boomed as well. Some factory jobs have disappeared; in 2007, Whirlpool, which had bought Maytag the previous year, closed an Iowa plant. But the state has lost far fewer jobs in the recent recession than it did in the early 1980s. The housing bubble wasn’t big here, financial institutions remained strong, and unemployment remained well below the national average.
For much of the 20th century, Iowa was a culturally and politically countercyclical state, headed in the opposite direction of the rest of the nation—determinedly, with confidence in its own chipper rectitude, unabashedly out of step. In the industrial New Deal era, it stayed mostly agricultural and Republican, even as Davenport and Des Moines radio announcer Ronald Reagan became an enthusiastic Roosevelt Democrat and headed to Hollywood. Iowa was dovish during the Vietnam War and afterward. In the 1980s, when Reagan, by then a conservative Republican, was president, Iowa’s economy was hit hard and self-pity became the dominant note of Iowa’s politics, as voters sought protection from the vagaries of the market. In the 1988 caucuses, Iowa Republicans voted against Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, and Iowa Democrats voted for populist Dick Gephardt of Missouri. In the fall, it gave Democrat Michael Dukakis his second highest percentage of any state.
Since then, Iowa and the nation have converged politically. It voted twice for Bill Clinton and went for Al Gore by 4,144 votes in 2000 and for George W. Bush by 10,059 votes in 2004. It gave Barack Obama a decisive boost in its precinct caucuses and then voted 55%-44% for him in November. Its two U.S. senators are split, one Republican and one Democratic. After 30 years of Republican governors, Iowa elected Democrats three times, starting in 1998. Republicans won majorities in the Legislature in the 1990s, lost them in 2004 and failed to regain them in 2006. Collectively, these results indicate a sort of steady moderation, a desire to accept the verdict of the markets and to honor traditional values, with a little hedging on both counts. Iowa remains quirky in some respects. It is still probably one of the most dovish, isolationist-prone states, though very much aware of its role as an international exporter. Its delegation voted for the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement and for normalizing trade relations with China in 1999 (Mexicans eat lots of corn and the Chinese buy a lot of pork). It is thrift-minded, seeing a balanced budget more as a badge of moral rectitude than as prudent economic policy. It pioneered legal riverboat gambling in 1989, but also has a large anti-abortion rights movement. And it has its own traditional gatherings, which are often of political significance. One is the Iowa State Fair, held every August on the east side of Des Moines, complete with the traditional 600-pound butter cow. Another is RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, held in late summer every year since 1973. And then there are the Iowa precinct caucuses, held on a cold night in January in presidential years, the first occasion in which ordinary Americans decide who will be their next president.
2008 Presidential Vote
Every four years, tens of thousands of Iowans troop to caucuses in nearly 2,000 precincts to begin the formal process of electing a president. The precinct caucuses were scheduled early in the 1972 cycle by Democratic doves who wanted more leverage for their views, and that year, they started George McGovern on his way to the Democratic nomination. But the caucuses have had other, unanticipated consequences. In 1976, Jimmy Carter’s strategist Hamilton Jordan determined that intensive campaigning could produce a surprise victory that could make a little-known candidate a national contender: Without Iowa and the next-up New Hampshire primary, Carter would not have become president.
Then, for the next 20 years, the Iowa caucuses were less nomination determinative. In 1980, George H.W. Bush’s intensive campaigning gave him a victory among Republicans, while Carter, still profiting from his 1976 contacts, trounced Sen. Edward Kennedy. But Bush lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, and Carter lost in November. In 1984, Democratic favorite Walter Mondale won 49% of the “delegate strength” (Democrats don’t compute the actual number of votes), but the momentum went to the 17% second-place finisher Gary Hart, though Mondale did win the nomination. In 1988, Iowa failed to pick the winners on either side. Dick Gephardt capitalized on Iowa’s economic woes to win among Democrats, while George H.W. Bush finished in third place behind Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson among Republicans—a sign of the rising strength of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party. But Gephardt and Dole lost in New Hampshire, and neither was nominated. In 1992, Iowa went dark. No Democrat challenged Iowa’s Tom Harkin here, and Pat Buchanan began his campaign against Bush in New Hampshire. In 1996, Dole had the support of leading Republicans, led by Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Charles Grassley, and he had farm-state roots as well. Dole’s very narrow victory was an omen of the weakness of his candidacy later.
In 2000, the Iowa caucuses became decisive again, for both parties, and remained so for Democrats in 2004 and 2008. The 2000 caucuses were moved to Monday, January 24, after New Hampshire surprised everyone by scheduling its primary for Tuesday, February 1. George W. Bush won the 25,000-strong August 1999 Republican straw poll at Ames, Iowa, after which Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole dropped out, and Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party altogether. Bush continued to build his organizational strength and won the caucus straw poll with 41% of the vote to Steve Forbes’s 30%. Both got a share of religious conservatives, as did Alan Keyes, who was third with 14%. On the Democratic side, the race was between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. In his 1988 campaign, Gore had skipped what he called “madness” in “the small state of Iowa,” but in June 1997, he was proclaiming, “I love Iowa.” And in November 1998, he was on the phone congratulating Tom Vilsack before Vilsack himself realized he had been elected governor. Gore did not get Vilsack’s support—he stayed neutral—but Gore did get vigorous support from Vilsack’s wife, from Sen. Tom Harkin and, perhaps most important, from Iowa’s labor unions. Gore won in “delegate strength” with 63% to Bradley’s 35%. That gave Gore momentum in New Hampshire, which he won eight days later, though by only 50%-46%. With five weeks to the next Democratic contest, Bradley dropped out, and Gore was the nominee.
Iowa was dispositive in 2004 as well. President Bush had no opposition. This was the Democrats’ show. The leader in Iowa polls from summer 2003 through the second week of January 2004 was Howard Dean. His opposition to the war in Iraq was popular among the state’s overwhelmingly dovish caucus-goers. His thousands of out-of-state volunteers seemed to have built the best turnout organization. But as the year opened, Democrats suddenly confronted the possibility that they could actually defeat Bush, and the question for many became not who could most stridently criticize the president and his policies but who could defeat him. Dean’s comment that the December 13 capture of Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein “has not made America safer” raised doubts about his electability. Dean’s irritated out-shouting of a 68-year-old Republican questioner in Oelwein January 11 was a breach of Iowa manners. His poll numbers immediately started plummeting. The question was who would rise. Gephardt, supported by labor unions and veterans of his campaign 16 years earlier, failed to gather new adherents. John Edwards, endorsed by the Des Moines Register, had only a few chipper out-of-staters organizing things. John Kerry, who mortgaged his Boston house for $6.4 million and put all of his effort into Iowa, had the best organization, the endorsement of Christie Vilsack—the governor was again technically neutral—and a strong message. Just days before the caucuses, he was joined by a Green Beret he had rescued in the waters of Vietnam. Kerry proclaimed that he could stand up to Bush on Iraq because he had volunteered and been decorated in the Vietnam War.
That was enough for victory on caucus night and later, the nomination. Howard Dean’s 3,500 orange-stocking-capped Perfect Stormers were swarming in the streets of Des Moines. But Kerry got the votes. Under Iowa Democrats’ procedures, the supporters of candidates who fail to meet a 15% threshold of the votes in any precinct can choose to caucus for another candidate. Entry polls at the caucuses showed Kerry well ahead, with Edwards, Dean, and Gephardt trailing. But Edwards had shrewdly targeted supporters of Dennis Kucinich, and their second-choice support for Edwards helped swell his numbers in the final standings, while Dean and Gephardt, failing to make the threshold in many precincts, saw their numbers dwindle below the entry poll. The final results, in “delegate strength”: Kerry 38%, Edwards 32%, Dean 18%, and Gephardt 11%. Gephardt soon left the race. Dean was effectively finished even before he emitted his famous scream on caucus night. Edwards was left to finish second or third to Kerry until Kerry clinched the nomination six weeks and one day later. But it was Iowa Democrats—some 122,000 of them—who did the deciding.
In 2008, both parties had candidates competing in the Iowa caucuses, but the Democratic contest was much more vigorous. Outgoing Gov. Vilsack announced he was running in November 2006, but his entry still left other Democrats competitive in the polls, and in February 2007, he withdrew and endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton. By the end of the year, Democratic candidates had more than 500 paid staffers in Iowa, while Republicans had fewer than 100. John Edwards had never really stopped visiting Iowa after the 2004 campaign, and by November 2007, he had made appearances in all 99 counties. Taking advantage of the propinquity of his home in Chicago, Barack Obama was in the state often. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd took time off from their duties as chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking committees, respectively, to campaign frequently in the state. And in November, Dodd moved his family to Iowa and enrolled his daughter in a Des Moines kindergarten. Clinton visited less often, and in the spring, a staffer’s memo recommending she skip Iowa leaked to the press. She led in initial polls, but her vote for the 2002 Iraq War resolution and her refusal to apologize for it (as Edwards did in 2005) hurt her with dovish Iowa Democrats. Her support of ethanol subsidies, a reversal of her previous opposition to them, did not seem to help much. But in the fall, she stepped up her Iowa campaign. The chief event of the Democratic race was the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner on November 10. All of the candidates had fans in the crowd, but the highlight was Obama’s electrifying speech. The Obama campaign shrewdly distributed tapes of the almost entirely white crowd cheering their candidate to African-American Democrats in South Carolina and other states.
Republican candidates attracted less attention. Mitt Romney outspent all other Republicans combined and had many more staff in the state. He started running television ads in the spring and leapt to a lead in the polls. But Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, built a network made up largely of evangelical Christians, and on the stump, the former Baptist minister displayed an appealing sense of humor and knowledge of popular culture. At the Ames straw poll in August 2007, Romney finished first and Huckabee an impressive second. But turnout was only 14,300, about 10,000 less than in 1999. Fred Thompson trailed. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, with unpopular positions on abortion and immigration respectively, did not show up.
About 239,000 people participated in the Democratic caucuses, more than double the record set in 2004. Obama won 38% of “state delegates,” a clear lead. He had big leads in the counties with universities: Johnson (Iowa City), Story (Ames), Polk (Des Moines), Linn (Cedar Rapids), and Scott (Davenport). He won especially large margins among independents and among liberals, among unmarried voters and among affluent voters. Edwards, carrying mainly small, rural counties, finished second with 30% “delegate strength,” just ahead of Clinton, with 29%. She carried western Iowa, the most conservative part of the state, but did not roll up big numbers in industrial counties, as Gore had in 2000. The 15% threshold essentially eliminated the rest of the field from the race: Bill Richardson, Biden, and Dodd. Obama’s victory in a state where less than 3% of the population is black was decisive. Through December 2007, he had been splitting the black vote with Clinton in South Carolina and in other states. After Iowa, his support from black voters skyrocketed. Had Clinton won, she might have clinched the nomination on or before Super Tuesday. Her victory in the New Hampshire primary five days later was the beginning of a long, close race. Edwards fell to the wayside after his poor third in South Carolina, adjacent to his native North Carolina. But in retrospect, it’s hard to see how Obama could have become president without winning the Iowa caucuses.
The result on the Republican side was far less decisive. Caucus turnout was 119,000, a little higher than the Republican record set in 1980 but only about half the level of the Democratic caucuses. Some 60% of caucus attendees told entrance poll-takers that they were evangelical or born-again Christians; 46% of them voted for Huckabee, who won with 35% of the total vote. Romney, for all his campaigning and spending, finished second, with 25%. Trailing were Thompson (13%), McCain (13%), Ron Paul (10%) and Giuliani (4%). Romney carried the eastern and western ends of the state. Paul carried Jefferson County, the home of Maharishi University. “Tonight we proved that American politics is still in the hands of ordinary folks like you,” Huckabee proclaimed on caucus night. But in the primaries to come, he was not able to expand his appeal substantially beyond evangelical and born-again Christians, who made up a larger percentage of Iowa caucus-goers than of primary voters in almost any other state. Romney, defeated here and in New Hampshire, lost crucial primaries by narrow margins to McCain, who effectively clinched the nomination by Super Tuesday. He was the first Republican presidential nominee to have finished below third in Iowa.
In 2000 and 2004, Iowa was one of the closest states in presidential elections. It was one of only three that switched between the two elections, giving Gore a narrow margin in 2000 and Bush in 2004. These were battles between rival organizations. The Democrats, building on Harkin’s campaigns in 1996 and 2002 and on the organizations built up for the precinct caucuses, prevailed in 2000. The Republicans, building a volunteer organization for Bush, prevailed in 2004. In 2008, it proved not to be such a close contest. Most polls throughout the year showed Obama well ahead of McCain, and the balance of enthusiasm, as demonstrated in caucus turnout, was on Obama’s side. He returned to the state on May 20, so that the glow of his caucus victories would overshadow what was expected to be a tough evening of primary returns. (He lost Kentucky by a wide margin, and his victory in Oregon was not reported until most Americans had gone to bed.) In October, McCain and running mate Sarah Palin stumped half a dozen times in Iowa, though perhaps only because other potential target states looked farther out of reach. Obama carried Iowa 54%-44%, winning four of the five congressional districts. He was especially strong in eastern Iowa. He won 61%-36% among young voters and 49%-48% among the elderly. White evangelical Protestants voted 65%-33% for McCain, but Catholics, traditionally Democratic in Iowa, voted 59%-41% for Obama.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status has been under attack, but was preserved against challenges at the 2004 Republican National Convention and by the rules adopted by the Democratic National Committee in August 2006. Provoked by the complaint by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and others that Iowa and New Hampshire lack racial diversity (Iowa is less than 3% black and less than 4% Hispanic), Democrats staged a second early caucus in Nevada and, after the New Hampshire primary, a second early primary in South Carolina. At their 2008 national conventions, both parties reaffirmed New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation-primary status but were silent on the Iowa caucuses. Iowa politicians of both parties will surely try to maintain it. As David Yepsen, the dean of Iowa political reporters, wrote in September 2008, “Defending the caucuses is a never-ending battle and a never-ending responsibility of political leaders in both parties in Iowa.” Alas, Yepsen later announced later his retirement from the Des Moines Register. His accurate and acute reporting, fair analysis, and sprightly writing helped keep the caucus process honest, and with him goes one of the arguments for letting Iowa vote first.
|111th Congress: 3 D, 2 R|
Iowa’s congressional district lines are drawn by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau and then approved by the governor and Legislature—a process that is praised by many critics of partisan gerrymandering and bipartisan incumbent protection plans. But it is not entirely apolitical. The bureau is not supposed to take past voting patterns or a legislator’s place of residence into account, and in good Iowa fashion, they don’t. But the governor and legislators can and do. In May 2001, the Iowa Senate rejected the bureau’s first plan after Republicans said the population disparities were too large. Its second plan placed Republican Reps. Jim Nussle and Jim Leach in the same district and separated Des Moines from suburban Dallas and Warren counties. Indeed, with the exception of the 5th District in western Iowa, all the districts combine very disparate parts of Iowa. Nevertheless, Vilsack and the Republican Legislature approved the plan. Two incumbents moved their residences, Leach into the 2nd District, most of which he had been representing, and Democrat Leonard Boswell into Des Moines in the new 3rd District, whose incumbent, Republican Greg Ganske, was running for the Senate.
The Iowa plan has produced more strenuous competition than has been seen in most states. In 2002, four of the five districts were contested seriously by both parties, and the 5th district had a spirited Republican primary. In 2004, only one district was seriously contested, and four of the five incumbents improved their percentages. In 2006, three districts were seriously contested.
Low population growth means that Iowa is likely to lose a seat in the reapportionment following the 2010 census, and there is no telling who will be the victim—or victims—of the Legislative Services Bureau and the governor and Legislature. The 2008 census estimates show the average district in a four-district plan would have 750,000 people—close to the 2008 population (767,000) of a district made up of Des Moines’s Polk County and the eight surrounding counties. Its partisan tilt would reflect the statewide average, 54%-44% in the 2008 presidential election. If the bureau created such a district, it would presumably also create a heavily Republican western district and two Democratic-leaning eastern districts. If Democratic Gov. Chet Culver is re-elected in 2010 and Democrats retain their current large majorities in the state House and Senate, they would probably approve such a plan, which would probably put Republican incumbents Tom Latham and Steve King in the same district.