The 2018 election may still be a long ways off in a political climate that can change rapidly on a daily basis, but all the data points for a good Democratic year in Iowa are starting to stack up. A string of special elections for state legislative seats have consistently seen massive margin swings to Democrats, culminating in last night’s Northwest Iowa race where a Democrat pulled within ten points in a district Donald Trump won by 41 points. Add that to the national political mood with a deeply unpopular president, a stunning victory by a Democrat in Alabama and Governor Kim Reynolds’ concerning reelection numbers, and you’ve got the recipe for a potential blue wave in Iowa in 2018.
[Update: In a Des Moines Register poll this evening, Trump is at a miserable 60% disapproval rating in Iowa.]
The party in complete control of government often faces difficult challenges in non-presidential year elections, but things really are starting to look very good for Democrats in the state that swung the hardest to Trump. Consider the vote margins in four Iowa special elections since the 2016 presidential race. In a district where Trump won by 21 points, a Democrat took the special election by 10. In another one where Hillary Clinton won by 11 points, the Democrat dominated with a 45-point win in the special election.
And what’s so remarkable about the margin shifts over 2016 is just how consistent they are.
A 32-point shift for Democrats in Davenport’s Senate District 45.
A 34-point shift for Democrats in Davenport’s House District 89.
A 31-point shift for Democrats in the Fairfield-based House District 82.
A 31-point shift for Democrats in Northwest Iowa’s Senate District 3.
Now we have a clear trend. (There was a fifth special election in Southwest Iowa, but a paperwork snafu kept the Democrat off the ballot – he still got 20% with write-ins.)
Replicate those kinds of improvements for Iowa Democrats statewide – or even just half that – and you’ll see Reynolds packing her bags come next November. Come close to that in many legislative districts, and you’ll see Democrats win not just promising suburban seats, but many rural ones as well. Retaking the Iowa House has never been a more likely outcome than it is now.
Of course, special election results are far from perfect predictors of future general elections. Democrats won the hotly-contested Fairfield district back in 2009 as well with Curt Hansen’s win, only to get blown out statewide in the 2010 election the next year. Turnout for specials are low and based on very unique situations.
But the variety of locations and dynamics in the Iowa special elections provides encouragement for Democrats that they’re not just some flukes. You could explain away one or two results based on the candidates or the time of year the election was held, but it’s hard to ignore all of these races taken together.
Two were in urban areas, two were mostly rural areas. Two were in Democratic strongholds, one was a formerly swing area that Trump dominated in, one was a solidly-Republican district. Three saw little spending from the parties, one saw full engagement from both.
And despite the variances in circumstances in the four races, the result was always the same: a massive improvement in the vote margin for Democrats. If for absolutely nothing else, it points to a motivated Democratic base and a demoralized vote from Republicans. Campaign volunteers in Sioux City observed that teachers and other union members were particularly motivated to turn out for the Democrat.
Part of what we may be seeing is that Hillary Clinton just really was a historically unpopular nominee in a state that was looking for a change in 2016. Absent her at the top of the ticket in 2018, Iowa may return its more natural politically purple lean.
And the Des Moines Register’s recent poll shows that anti-incumbency mood is as strong as ever. Only 35% said they would vote to reelect Reynolds, while 49% said it’s time for someone new. That’s despite Reynolds’ pretty decent 51% approval rating. And it’s not like things are going to get any easier for Reynolds as time goes on – more deep cuts to popular services, an imploding state budget, continuing state scandals, the Medicaid management disaster and more has constantly hampered her administration’s efforts to put out their own positive message.
Republicans had hoped that Trump’s big win in 2016 has a harbinger for a reliably red Iowa, joining states like Kansas where Democratic statewide wins became nearly impossible. We won’t know the real answer on that until next November, but a betting person would start moving their money to Iowa Democrats.
by Pat Rynard