What Early Voting Numbers May Say About Iowa’s Primary Races

Early voting in Iowa’s June 7th primary has now been underway for a week. Iowans can vote in person at their county auditor’s office or by an absentee ballot at home.

The number of those absentees are always a very interesting thing to track (especially to this former field staffer). It’s one of the only public numbers you can get that gives a neutral observer a look into the campaigns. They can tell you a lot about where the excitement is around the state for certain races and which campaigns may be well-organized, hitting the pavement to get requests and collect absentee ballots. An early vote in the bank is golden and makes election day that much easier.

So let’s take a look at the totals of absentee ballot requests – these are from a few days ago when I requested them from the Secretary of State’s office.

You can look at the full documents here (by CD) (by SD) (by HD). Also for reference: the list of candidates running.

Democrats: 3628
Republicans: 1942

No surprise there – Democrats use the early vote option much more than Republicans, plus they have more competitive races. Democrats have multiple candidates in the U.S. Senate primary, 1st and 3rd District. Republicans only have the King-Bertrand race in the 4th. Still, should Democrats have an even bigger advantage?

Here’s the congressional district breakdown:

CD 1
Democrats: 765
Republicans: 204

CD 2
Democrats: 1126
Republicans: 535

CD 3
Democrats: 1467
Republicans: 498

CD 4
Democrats: 270
Republicans: 705

That lower number in the 1st District for Democrats may surprise some. This has been the longest-running primary in the state, but the district lags behind the 2nd and 3rd in early voting requests. Monica Vernon’s campaign has a large field team, and when looking at where in the district the early vote is concentrated, they seem to be having an effect in Vernon’s home base of Cedar Rapids. If you look at the breakdown by Senate District, two of the three Cedar Rapids districts have over 100 Democratic absentees each. In comparison, the Dubuque districts in Pat Murphy’s base lag behind.

Cedar Rapids SDs
SD 33: 115
SD 34: 133
SD 35: 55

Dubuque SDs
SD 49: 32
SD 50: 53

On the Republican side, the 4th District predictably is garnering the most activity from Republicans, but it’s not clear that that’s due to the Republican primary. Bertrand’s challenge to King hasn’t gotten much traction yet, and the absentee requests there are largely concentrated in one state house district with a three-way Republican primary. What should be most concerning for Bertrand is that only 32 Republican absentees were requested so far out of his own Sioux City senate district. If he’s to have any shot at knocking off King, he needs a very strong turnout from the business community and friends in Sioux City. That’s not happening right now.

Actually, it appears statewide the biggest motivator for early voting is coming from state legislative primaries. Those local races in low-turnout primaries can be won or lost on how many people you get to vote by absentee ballot. In 2014 I ran Tony Bisignano’s senate primary on Des Moines’ South Side – in the first week of early voting our district’s absentees accounted for a full 1/5 of all the Democratic absentees statewide.

Here’s some of the state legislative districts that stand out:

HD 4 (NW Iowa): 305 Republicans
HD 29 (Newton): 432 Democrats
HD 41 (Des Moines): 458 Democrats
SD 8 (Council Bluffs): 141 Republicans
SD 16 (Des Moines): 525 Democrats

As you can see, the Republican primary for HD 4 between Skyler Wheeler, Jeffrey VanDerWerff and Kevin Van Otterloo accounts for 43% of the Republican absentees in the 4th District.

Democratic primaries in Polk County lead the way. HD 41 is the Eddie Mauro primary challenge to longtime Democratic incumbent Jo Oldson. SD 16 is the contest between Nate Boulton and Pam Dearden Conner to replace Pam’s father Dick Dearden in the east-side senate seat. It’s a little surprising that the house race has generated almost as many absentees as the twice-as-large senate one.

The Newton primary between incumbent Dan Kelley and challenger Wes Breckenridge is the other hot ticket in the state with 432 requests.

Finally, the Republican race to take on Mike Gronstal in SD 8 has a bit of movement, but you might think a three-way primary between Dan Dawson, Mark Hansen and Al Ringgenberg would cause more interest than 141 requests.

A race not generating much interest is the HD 33 primary on Des Moines’ South Side, where Jim Addy is primary-ing Democratic incumbent Brian Meyer. Only 82 Democratic ballots had been requested by earlier this week.

Where else do voters not seemed too jazzed up about their competitive primaries? The GOP primary in SD 42 to go against Rich Taylor has a measly 33 absentee requests for the two Republicans. Oddly, there’s 171 Democratic requests in that Lee/Henry district right now, despite no competitive legislative primaries on their side. Perhaps there’s a local race I’m unaware of.

The race to replace Ron Jorgensen in Sioux City’s HD 6 is a snoozer. 22 Republicans had requested absentees for either of the two seeking to replace him. Liberty-backing Bryan Holder’s primary against Republican Greg Forestall in HD 22 only had 33 requests. Low numbers in HD 25, Tim Mohrs wants to oust incumbent Stan Gustafson. The Democratic primary in the Knoxville-based HD 28 only had 43 requests.

Brett Nelson’s peculiar challenge to Kevin Koester had generated a whopping 7 requests in Ankeny’s HD 38 (actually, you’d think Koester would get his campaign machinery going considering he has a difficult general election challenge with Heather Matson). Republicans in Johnston are trying to primary Jake Highfill again, but had created a pathetic 6 Republican requests. Seriously, Highfill could probably be knocked off in a primary, but the campaigns run against him have been garbage so far.

The open Decorah-based HD 55 surprisingly doesn’t have a lot in early votes yet – both sides have primaries there. Just 50 requests were for Democrats, 6 for Republicans. A three-way GOP primary to replace Brian Moore in the Jackson County HD 58 only had 14 requests. Same on the Democrats’ Tama County primary in targeted HD 72 to take on Dean Fisher – just 12 there.

The big HD 77 Johnson County primary between Amy Nielsen and Abbie Weipert very surprisingly only had 20 Democratic requests.

All in all, quite a few races that could use a more focused field effort to turn out voters early for their candidate. Again, you can really swing a race with a strong absentee effort. Sometimes these legislative primaries only see several hundred to a thousand voters show up. Running up a couple-hundred early vote lead is all you need in some cases.

We’ll do another post or two once we get closer to the June 7th primary with updated totals. These are now the weeks where the early vote really gets going.



by Pat Rynard
Posted 5/5/16

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