In January, 2008, the Hawkeye State’s Democratic caucus-goers shocked political observers by backing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. It would prove to be a fateful vote, one which would herald the slow demise of Clinton’s presidential ambitions in the last decade.
In the interim, Iowa has looked less like a swingy purple state and more like a reliably, if marginal, Democratic state. While George W. Bush won the state in 2004 by a single point, he lost it to Al Gore by a similar margin in 2000. Obama won the state in 2008 by 10 points and shed only a minimal amount of support in 2012 to again win the state by just under 6 points.
In the Obama years, Republicans began to justifiably despair that Iowa was less a swing state and more a traditionally blue state. But Senator-elect Joni Ernst’s 8.5-point victory over Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) might be giving Republicans a glimmer of hope that Iowa is firmly purple again and may even be trending back toward the Republican column.
“Oh, come on,” you might say. “The results of one election, a midterm election no less, are hardly representative of a trend.”
True, but an analysis via FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten makes a compelling case for the notion that the Iowa electorate is moving in a conservative direction.
“White voters in Iowa without a college degree have shifted away from the Democratic Party,” Enten observed. “And if that shift persists, it could have a big effect on the presidential race in 2016, altering the White House math by eliminating the Democratic edge in the electoral college.”
There are a lot of white voters in Iowa without a college degree, and they have differed politically from their demographic counterparts nationally. In 2008, President Obama won non-college whites in Iowa by 6 percentage points; he lost them nationally by 18 points. In 2012, college-educated and non-college-educated whites both broke by about 6 percentage points for Obama. That’s very different from nationwide, where Mitt Romney won non-college whites by 25 percentage points while winning college-educated whites by 14 points.
Enten noted that Braley’s lackluster performance among non-college educated whites tracks with a drop off Barack Obama experienced with this demographic in 2012. It is a shift that is, he wrote, indicative of a trend which suggest Iowa is shifting away from the Democratic Party at a rate disproportionate with the rest of the nation.
Enten goes on to spell out why this trend in a state which propelled Obama to the presidency could spell doom for Democrats in coming elections:
It’s hard to overstate what this could mean going into 2016. In every presidential election since 1992, Iowa has been a swing state and yet a little more Democratic-leaning than the nation. But it’s been a very light blue state, helping to give Democrats an edge in the electoral college. In 2012, the states combining for 272 electoral votes were more Democratic than the nation. Using a uniform swing, Republicans would have needed to win the national popular vote that year by about 1.5 points to have won Colorado (the tipping-point state) and the electoral college.
When we take Iowa and its six electoral votes out of the Democratic column, the math changes: The Democratic edge in the electoral college virtually disappears. Only 266 electoral votes would be more Democratic than the nation. Republicans would have 259 electoral votes (including Iowa). The 13 electoral votes in Virginia, which was 0.03 percentage points more Democratic the nation as a whole in 2012, would be the deciders.
If this proves to be true, it comports with a study performed by Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende who observed in 2012 that, while the “New South” is becoming more Democratic, states in the Upper Midwest, like Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, are growing more Republican.
As Trende demonstrated in his wonderful book The Lost Majority, there are no permanent majorities in American politics. The two parties’ electoral coalitions are always in flux. Republicans who believed that the South would remain reliably Republican for generations were soundly repudiated in the Obama-era. Democrats, meanwhile, learned in 2014 that the states that were trending in their direction in past cycles may not continue along that path indefinitely.