We often hear about the rural versus urban (or east versus west) divide in Iowa politics as a shorthand reference to the geopolitical makeup of the state. The eastern part of the state, particularly northeast Iowa, is considered heavily Democratic while the west and northwest are strongholds for Republicans. But to what degree do these parts of the state differ from each other?
I was recently asked to speak on Iowa Public Radio concerning partisanship in Iowa counties; specifically how “red” are counties out west and how “blue” are some of Iowa’s more urban counties. That conversation can be found here. Below I discuss more in-depth some of my findings.
Take three counties: Sioux County in northwest Iowa, Black Hawk County in northeast Iowa, and Johnson County in eastern Iowa. Sioux is a rural county, while Black Hawk and Johnson are obviously more urban, with Waterloo and Cedar Falls in Black Hawk and Iowa City in Johnson County. Is Sioux, as expected, more Republican than Black Hawk and Johnson, and is Johnson more liberal than Black Hawk? To answer these questions, I use data from the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office for the years 2000-2012.
First, on party identification. From 2000-2012, the average percentage of registered voters who identify as Republican in Sioux (S), Black Hawk (BH), and Johnson(J) Counties are as follows: 72.07%(S); 26.08% (BH); and 19.85% (J). So, and to no surprise to native Iowans, Sioux is solidly Republican while the other two lean heavily to the left. But what about voting patterns?
In the four presidential elections since 2000, the average percent two-party vote going to the Republican candidate in each county was: 84.31% (S); 41.63% (BH); 33.10% (J). But do we see similar patterns with other statewide races? In other words, do Republicans always receive 85 percent of the vote in Sioux County, while Republicans running in Black Hawk and Johnson Counties receive on average two-fifths to one-third of the vote?
There is actually more variation than expected. Take, for example, the seven U.S. House elections from 2000-2012. In Sioux County, the Republican candidate never got below 82% of the two-party vote. In Black Hawk and Johnson Counties, however, the Republican candidate, got the majority (greater than 50%) of the two-party vote three times (in 2000, 2002, and 2004). And in both cases, it was a moderate (at the time) Republican who did it: Jim Nussle for Black Hawk County and Jim Leach for Johnson County.
If we take this a bit further, looking across all federal and statewide elections since 2000, three numbers stick out as indicators of candidates with strong statewide appeal: 85, 45 and 36.
In Sioux County, when the percent two-party vote for the GOP candidate dips below 85 percent, it is indicative of a particularly strong Democratic opponent (and/or a left-leaning wind going into the election). The following candidates were able to accomplish this feat: Obama/Biden (U.S. President: 2012 and 2008); Harkin (U.S. Senate: 2002 and 2008); Christie Vilsack (U.S. House: 2012); Vilsack/Pederson (Governor: 2002); Michael Fitzgerald (State Treasurer: 2002); and Tom Miller (Attorney General: 2002 and 2010).
In Black County, the number is 45 percent. That is, when the percent two -party vote for the GOP candidate in Black Hawk County is above 45 percent, chances are we are dealing with a very strong Republican candidate. Or, put another way, the Democratic candidate is in real trouble. In addition to Nussle, the following Republicans managed to breach the 45 percent barrier in Black Hawk County: Grassley (U.S. Senate: 2004 and 2010); Ben Lange (U.S. House: 2010—only Republican to lose despite receiving greater than 45 percent of the two-party vote in BH); Branstad/Reynolds (Governor: 2010); Schultz (IA-Secretary of State: 2010); Vaudt (State Auditor: 2002 and 2010); Northey (IA-Secretary of Agriculture: 2006 and 2010).
Finally, in Johnson County, the golden number for Republican candidates is 36 percent. A Republican able to muster 36 percent of the vote in Johnson County stands a good chance of winning the election. In addition to Leach, the following candidates were successful at doing just that: Bush/Cheney (U.S. President: 2000); Grassley (U.S. Senate: 2004 and 2010); Miller-Meeks (U.S. House: 2010); Branstad/Reynolds (Governor: 2010); Vaudt (State Auditor: 2002 and 2010); Michael Fitzgerald (State Treasurer: 2002); Northey (IA-Secretary of Agriculture: 2010); John Askew (IA-Secretary of Agriculture: 2010).
So, to sum up. Sioux County is reliably Republican, and Johnson, and to a lesser extent, Black Hawk County, are reliably Democratic. Put another way, if we only knew the percent GOP two-party vote in Sioux, Black Hawk, or Johnson County for a particular candidate, we could make a fairly accurate prediction about that candidate’s chances of winning.
I intend to map all 99 counties and will try to provide regular updates along the way. I look forward to your comments.
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This post was written by Chris Larimer on December 2, 2012