AMAC Exclusive – by Daniel Roman
As Donald Trump returns to Iowa this weekend in a visit that will likely be closely watched for its national political implications, he does so as a truly transformational figure in the state’s political history. No state underwent a greater political shift during the Trump years than Iowa. Once seen by Democrats as a reliably “blue state,” it voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 by more than 10%, and for every Democrat presidential candidate thereafter except John Kerry, who lost it by a mere 0.31% when he lost nationally by 2%. However, the state has shifted dramatically to the right in the Trump era. Donald Trump won it by more than 9% in 2016, and by more than 8% in 2020, despite polls showing a close race or even Democrat leads in both years.
One poll, however, got it right. Iowa has a distinctive political culture, a consequence of the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucus, and one mainstay of that culture is Ann Selzer, the pollster for the Des Moines Register. While other pollsters have sought to counter rising costs and decreasing accuracy by turning to robocalls, online surveys, and “magic sauce” recipes, Selzer has stuck to the old methods. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because Iowa voters trust her not to have an agenda, or because she lacks one, Selzer has been extraordinarily accurate.
Less than a week before the 2020 election, with the Real Clear Politics average showing a Trump lead over Biden of less than 1%, Selzer released her final poll. It was a shocker. She found Donald Trump leading Biden by 7%, 48%-41%, and Republican Senator Joni Ernst leading her Democratic opponent, State Senator Theresa Greenfield, 51%-45%. Other polls had Greenfield in the lead – Emmerson by 4% and Democrat-leaning Progressive Policy Polling (PPP) by 1%. Selzer’s break with conventional wisdom earned her denunciations from a political analyst class, which saw any doubts about a predicted Blue Wave as triggering. Not least because Selzer’s analysis showed Republicans ahead in three of Iowa’s four congressional districts. Democrats had won three in 2018.
“Why the Selzer Poll May be Wrong” was the headline on Bleeding Heartland, a Democratic blog following Iowa politics. “Trump can still win but the polls would have to be off by more than 2016” wrote Nate Silver, while Harry Enten for CNN wrote how “This one poll is giving Trump backers hope and Democrats anxiety.” Yet Enten nonetheless concluded that “all that being said, there are many reasons to doubt that this Iowa poll is really telling us all that much. While Selzer is a fantastic pollster, every pollster has the occasional outlier. Selzer has been wrong before. Pollsters aren’t magicians.”
But on election day, Ann Selzer was vindicated again. Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden by a margin of 8.4%, while Joni Ernst was reelected by a 52%-46% margin, almost identical to the 51%-45% margin Selzer had shown. As for the House races, Republicans won three of them, and nearly took the fourth seat. In the state legislature, Republicans won large majorities. For Democrats, who had hoped that 2016 was a one-off, and that Iowa would revert to the state which had given Obama a 6% margin in 2012, 2020 was disillusioning.
It is Selzer’s reputation and track record which suggest we should pay close attention to her most recent poll, which has Biden at a near-historic low 31% approval rating, with 61% disapproving. While his personal favorability ratings were slightly better at 37%-61%, they paled in comparison to Donald Trump’s, at 53% favorable, 45% unfavorable. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Ann Selzer told the Des Moines Register. Driving Biden’s collapse were 36%-60% favorability ratings on COVID-19, down from 53% in June and 57% in March, a 25%-67% rating on immigration, and a new addition, a 22%-69% rating on handling Afghanistan.
The latter is particularly striking. Iowa has long been an isolationist state. The shift to the Democrats in 1988, which saw Dukakis carry the state by more than 10% even as Bush won nationally by almost 7%, was due in large part to an agricultural crisis blamed on the free trade policies of the Reagan Administration. Iowa drifted back to the Republicans in the late 1990s, enough for Bush to come close to winning it in 2000, and to carry it by the smallest of margins in 2004, but the GOP lost every statewide office, both houses of the legislature, and two Congressional seats in 2006 before Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012 by margins well above his national average. The Iraq war was deeply unpopular, almost as much so as free trade.
Internally, the high profile of liberal Senator Tom Harkin tended to lead Democrats to exaggerate the liberalism of the state. Many believed that Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley was a strong favorite to succeed him in 2014, and they subsequently blamed his loss by more than 8% to Republican State Senator Joni Ernst, who they had not taken seriously, on gaffes by Braley, or the national political environment. They had the same reaction to the loss by Democratic Governor Chet Culver by 10% to former Republican Governor Terry Branstad in 2010. “Bad year, former four-term governor, what do you expect?” they said. In reality, however, these were previews of Iowa’s changing partisanship. At the time it was masked by the unpopularity of the interventionism and economic policies of the Bush-Cheney GOP.
Democrats seem to have mistaken the resonance of isolationism and protectionism for actual support for their far-left domestic priorities. They should have questioned why an overwhelmingly white, rural state in the American Heartland seemed to have so many liberals for some reason. In 2016, Iowa was a perfect target for the perfect Republican candidate. Donald Trump established himself both as anti-interventionist in opposition to the Bush/Cheney wing of the Republican Party, and as a critic of free trade and what it had done to American farmers. Hillary Clinton, whose husband had signed NAFTA and who had herself voted for the Iraq War, was a terrible fit, and in hindsight the shift from a 6% Obama win to a 9.4% Trump margin (a 15% swing) should hardly have been a surprise.
Democrats achieved an “Indian summer” in 2018 when they gained two Congressional seats and nearly took a third to secure the entire House delegation, and they also nearly won the governorship. But in hindsight, the limitations of their wave should have made Iowa’s shift obvious. While their candidate ran Governor Kim Reynolds close, Reynolds still won 50% to 47%, and Republicans still held both houses of the legislature. Democratic hopes in Iowa rested, as did their hopes for winning the state in the presidential election, on the delusion that they would do better in 2020 than 2018, not worse.
It now looks like 2018, not 2016, was the blip. Donald Trump is arriving more popular than he has ever been, according to Selzer’s new poll. Joe Biden is supported by barely a third of voters. Democrats seem to have given up hope of winning the governorship in 2022, and while former Congresswoman Abby Finkenaur is challenging Senator Chuck Grassley for his Senate seat, Selzer shows Finkenaur trailing by 18%, 55% to 37%.
Selzer also indicates that GOP success owes more to Donald Trump than to an upsurge in conservatism in general. The same poll finding Donald Trump with a 53%-45% rating shows voters oppose bans on local mask mandates only by a 48%-50% margin, and oppose vaccine passports by a 46%-50% margin. When it comes to abortion, Iowa has if anything moved to the left since 2008. That year, 48% of Iowans said abortion should be mostly or always legal compared with 46% who said it should be largely or always illegal. Selzer found that in 2021 those numbers were 57% and 38%, respectively.
But on immigration, Afghanistan, trade, crime, all the issues Donald Trump made a center of his campaigns and presidency, Iowans are solidly in the Republican camp. Could Democrats make a comeback? Their success in 1988 and under Obama indicates they could, if the Republican party returns to a hardline approach to free trade and foreign nation building. But as long as the Republican Party sticks to the issues Trump ran, won, and governed on, it is likely Iowa will be a safely red state.
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