Iowa, once a model swing state, fell so hard for Donald Trump four years ago that 2020 seemed like a foregone conclusion.
But in a sign of how Trump’s reelection prospects have weakened across the country, even the heartland may be having second thoughts.
Since the start of the year, Democrats in Iowa have added about twice as many active voters to their rolls as Republicans, nudging ahead in total registration for the first time in years. The farm economy has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. And though Trump still holds a small lead in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, he’s now airing TV advertisements there — a tacit acknowledgment that the campaign anticipates a contest.
“We were approaching ‘done’ status — stick a fork in us,” Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said of the party’s status after the 2016 election.
Now, she said, “the worm is turning.”
That Iowa is even on the radar is surprising. Unlike in Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, Iowa four years ago was never in doubt. Of the six states that supported Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, none swung harder to Trump than Iowa. Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points — a margin wider than in Texas — and defeated Hillary Clinton in all but six of the state’s 99 counties.
This year, once Democrats finished with the chaotic presidential caucuses in February, many left Iowa without any expectation of coming back in the fall.
But in recent weeks — amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread civil unrest since the death of George Floyd — Trump has fallen further behind Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in public opinion polls everywhere. A CNN poll on Monday put Biden ahead of Trump by 14 percentage points nationally, and Biden is leading Trump in most swing states. Trump is now advertising in states he won comfortably in 2016, including Iowa, where he has spent more than $300,000 on TV in recent weeks, according to data from the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
“The fact that they’re advertising here, they wouldn’t waste the money if they didn’t need to,” said Doug Gross, a Republican operative who was a chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Much of the Democrats’ registration gains in Iowa can be attributed to the excitement surrounding the party’s caucuses — and the year-plus of campaigning and organizing in Iowa leading up to them.
They’ll need all those new voters. The number of white, non-college educated voters in the state — Trump’s demographic sweet spot — suggests a wholesale defection from the president may be unlikely. At the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin wrote last year that if Trump “can maintain or come close to his support among white non-college voters in Iowa, he should carry the state easily again.”
But Iowa Democrats made gains in the midterm elections in 2018. And Iowans have reasons to be frustrated with the current state of Washington. Iowa’s farm economy was hit hard by Trump’s trade wars and has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, with researchers at Iowa State University estimating billions of dollars in losses in the state’s corn, soybean, ethanol and livestock industries. Conservative-leaning farmers may not blame the Republican president.
But in Iowa, Gross said, “When we have farm problems … the farmers may not blame the president, but the public does.”
Iowa, he said, “is very much in play this fall.”
The significance of a competitive landscape in Iowa extends beyond the state’s six electoral votes. More counties in Iowa than in any other state flipped from supporting Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, rendering a petri dish state of “Obama-Trump” voters who were motivated more than anything four years ago by exhaustion with Washington and a desire for change.
Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa-based Democratic strategist who has studied Obama-Trump voters, estimated there are about 200,000 of them in Iowa. Before the caucuses, in which Biden finished a dismal fourth, Link said he cautioned Biden advisers that Biden’s emphasis on returning government to normal after Trump’s presidency would not resonate with these voters.
But in the unrest after Floyd’s death — and in Biden’s calls for police reforms nationally — Link said Biden now “has the opportunity to be the ‘change’ candidate.”
“Remember, his message in the caucus was ‘Let’s bring things back the way they were’ — not really a change message for change voters. But now he can be for reform — let’s reform police, and let’s reform the judicial system and let’s deal with systemic racial prejudice,” Link said. “This whole kind of movement that’s been going on for the past week allows Biden to be the change candidate and puts Trump in the box of being for the status quo.”
On Sunday night, Trump — seemingly frustrated with the tilt of the electoral landscape against him — tweeted, “If I wasn’t constantly harassed for three years by fake and illegal investigations, Russia, Russia, Russia, and the Impeachment Hoax, I’d be up by 25 points on Sleepy Joe and the Do Nothing Democrats. Very unfair, but it is what it is!!!”
John Stineman, a Republican strategist in Iowa, said Trump’s advertising buy is small enough that it is likely “a stroke to the base more than it is a fear-motivated thing.” Still, Stineman, who has long predicted a competitive race in Iowa, described the Democratic base in Iowa as being “as activated as it could be.”
After four years of Trump, said Julia Krieger, a Biden spokeswoman, “Iowa Democrats smell blood in the water.”
Democrats in Iowa are coming off a midterm election in which they flipped two congressional seats and a presidential caucus this year that exposed Iowans to more than a year of campaign appearances by Democrats tearing into Trump.
Heartened by what he called “a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of participation by Democrats in the process,” this year, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a former secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration, said Iowa is “on the list” of states where Biden has an opportunity to compete.
“I don’t think it’s at the top of the list,” he said, noting several states where the outcome was narrower in 2016. “But you want multiple ways to get to 270 [electoral votes]. If you’re able to win back Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, that still doesn’t get you to 270 unless you win a few other states.”
Iowa, Vilsack said, is “a competitive state.”
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