Democrats in Iowa are feeling good as they head into the 2018 elections, boosted by turnout and registration data from the primary that shows their base energized and involved. The party added over 24,000 new registered Democrats in a month and saw their largest primary turnout in decades.

But the numbers weren’t all positive across the state. Certain counties, including those that saw large shifts to Donald Trump and the Republicans in 2016, didn’t enjoy the same kind of improvements in Democratic momentum. While 38% of registered Democrats turned out to vote in Story County, only 17% showed up in Muscatine County. And while Dallas County saw a 9% one-month jump in their number of registered Democrats, Burlington’s Des Moines County received less than 1% of a bump. (See the full spreadsheet here)

Those results should be informative to Democratic campaigns and the party as they prepare for the general election. No one was going to rely on a blue wave to manifest itself, but the county-level data, including the new registration information, shows both areas that offer opportunities and those that require a lot of work.

We’ll take a look at two key numbers: turnout and percentage increase of registered Democrats. Turnout rates for Democrats in the primary spanned from 50% in Jefferson County to 15% in Buena Vista. The percent of which Democrats increased their registered voter numbers ranged from 9% in Dallas County to -4% in Lyon County (as in, there are 1,143 newly registered Democrats in Dallas County, bringing their total to 13,659, or a 9% increase).

Let’s start off with the good counties for Democrats. Here’s the top 15 sorted by turnout.

County Registered Ds Primary Votes D Turnout New Registered D D Registration Change
Jefferson 4,188 2,094 50% 255 6%
Ringgold 837 351 42% 44 6%
Davis 1,723 693 40% 101 6%
Johnson 43,417 17,155 40% 2140 5%
Story 19,323 7,335 38% 1066 6%
Polk 114,629 43,071 38% 6371 6%
Adams 568 206 36% 27 5%
Dallas 13,659 4,910 36% 1143 9%
Adair 984 346 35% 49 5%
Warren 9,780 3,415 35% 484 5%
Dubuque 25,916 9,040 35% 1021 4%
Guthrie 1,607 547 34% 20 1%
Montgomery 1,080 359 33% 80 8%
Calhoun 1,287 427 33% 68 6%
Grundy 1,366 438 32% 3 0%

And here’s the top 15 sorted by the percentage of newly registered Democrats (it’s not always the same – higher numbers here may mean more independents are coming over to the party):

County New Registered D D Registration Change Registered Ds Primary Votes D Turnout
Dallas  1,143 9%  13,659 4910 36%
Montgomery  80 8%  1,080 359 33%
Clay  129 7%  1,988 588 30%
Washington  198 7%  3,098 854 28%
Cass  90 6%  1,478 434 29%
Jefferson  255 6%  4,188 2094 50%
Davis  101 6%  1,723 693 40%
Franklin  70 6%  1,208 316 26%
Polk  6,371 6%  114,629 43071 38%
Bremer  220 6%  3,965 1238 31%
Union  93 6%  1,678 506 30%
Story  1,066 6%  19,323 7335 38%
Cedar  170 6%  3,196 1002 31%
Calhoun  68 6%  1,287 427 33%
Ringgold  44 6%  837 351 42%

The hotly-contested state senate primary in the Ottumwa/Fairfield district between Mary Stewart and Ed Malloy catapulted counties like Jefferson and Davis to the top of the turnout list. Wapello County comes in at 25th, which is pretty good when we start to look at other blue-collar communities.

Aside from that local race, Democrats saw some of their best turnouts in the urban and suburban counties that the party has seen gains in under Trump. Linn County came in 16th on the turnout list. That matches the national trends and is good news for House Democrats’ prospects in places like the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids suburbs. It’s also mostly encouraging for the statewide candidates, who will need higher turnout than ever from the Democratic base in large cities to offset Republicans’ advantage elsewhere

There were also many rural counties that did particularly well, most of which are in the 3rd Congressional District where Democrats had their most competitive primary. Democrats even pulled into an essential tie with Republicans for registered voters there; there are now 169,208 registered Democrats and 169,269 registered Republicans in the 3rd District. That’s a very positive sign for Cindy Axne. Her biggest opportunity lies in the suburban vote, but a stronger Democratic performance in the rural counties will help, too.

Overall, Democrats’ received their biggest increase in registered voters in both the 1st and 3rd Districts:

Congressional June D July D D Change
1 156,594 162,719 6,125
2 161,317 166,676 5,359
3 160,158 169,208 9,050
4 116,129 119,785 3,656

Most of that was thanks to the competitive primaries, but the NextGen organization has also been running a voter registration drive aimed at young people. They’ve reported collecting 1,230 new registration forms in the 1st District and 1,032 in the 3rd.

Now let’s look at the most interesting part: the counties that under-performed. These do very much fit a trend and offer up some warning signs for Democrats. Here’s the bottom 15 counties for turnout in the primary:

County Registered Ds Primary Votes D Turnout New Registered D D Registration Change
Buena Vista 2,882 429 15% 34 1%
Crawford 2,465 387 16% 47 2%
Clinton 9,496 1,610 17% 102 1%
Emmet 1,702 289 17% 14 1%
Muscatine 7,857 1,347 17% 218 3%
Floyd 2,853 491 17% 33 1%
Plymouth 3,036 527 17% 72 2%
Pottawattamie 15,126 2,628 17% 367 2%
Mitchell 1,580 285 18% -8 -1%
Howard 1,656 304 18% 15 1%
Cerro Gordo 8,676 1,612 19% 212 3%
Monona 1,629 306 19% 18 1%
Worth 1,334 253 19% 48 4%
Shelby 1,735 331 19% 51 3%
Harrison 2,025 390 19% 16 1%

And here’s the 15 counties that had the smallest increase (or even a decrease) in newly-registered Democrats:

County New Registered D D Registration Change Registered Ds Primary Votes D Turnout
Lyon -33 -4%  764  173 23%
Palo Alto -24 -1%  1,887  414 22%
Mitchell -8 -1%  1,580  285 18%
Monroe 1 0%  1,441  350 24%
Clarke 3 0%  1,467  399 27%
Grundy 3 0%  1,366  438 32%
Des Moines 24 0%  10,111  1,977 20%
Clayton 11 0%  3,227  752 23%
Wright 10 1%  1,744  350 20%
Keokuk 11 1%  1,778  357 20%
Mahaska 17 1%  2,374  505 21%
Harrison 16 1%  2,025  390 19%
Emmet 14 1%  1,702  289 17%
Lee 79 1%  8,849  1,871 21%
Howard 15 1%  1,656  304 18%

Both Lyon and Palo Alto had a Republican primary for state senate where the winner essentially takes the seat now held by independent Senator David Johnson, so that likely had an impact there. There’s also many rural Western Iowa counties on this list, but Democrats are used to seeing a steady erosion out there.

The biggest source of concern is in the medium-sized, blue-collar counties that saw very weak turnout in the primary and little increase in registered Democrats. That includes Clinton, Cerro Gordo, Pottawattamie, Muscatine and Des Moines (17th on the list) counties. All of these have similar demographics: mostly white, blue collar and working poor, lower education levels. They also used to be reliably Democratic strongholds (with perhaps the exception of Pottawattamie) that the party could count on a several thousand vote margin before the 2016 flip. (This is why Wapello’s good performance is notable – it was an exception to counties of similar demographics).

A big question for Iowa Democrats is whether the voters who left the party in droves for Trump will start to return to form in 2016. These numbers aren’t very encouraging on that front. With the exception of Dubuque and Allamakee counties, every single county along the Mississippi River had less than 25% turnout for the primary. Scott County continues to badly underperform its urban counterparts, with only a 22% turnout and 4% increase in registered Democrats.

Both the Quad Cities and Council Bluffs seem to suffer from the problem of being on the edge of the state, centered in media markets that cover two different states’ politics. When local voters are less tuned in to Iowa’s Democratic candidates and political scene, it results in lower engagement and turnout.

This is also problematic for certain legislative districts. While Democrats may be favored to pick up house seats in several suburban districts, they still need to grab a handful of pick-ups in the rural and blue-collar seats that were the traditional battlegrounds before 2016. That includes races in Scott and Muscatine counties.

It’s also worrisome for several of the key senate races that Democrats are defending in. Northern Iowa continues to have turnout issues, but Senator Amanda Ragan needs Mason City to perform well to carry SD 27. Jackson County, home to Senator Tod Bowman, didn’t have a lot of Democratic participation in the primary. And hopefully Senator Rita Hart’s addition to the statewide ticket motivates Democrats in Clinton County, which was 3rd-worst for turnout, to vote for her replacement.

Finally, for all the talk that Iowa Democrats like to do about increasing Latino turnout in places like Storm Lake, the numbers never end up corresponding. Buena Vista came in dead last with a 15% turnout.

Of course, numbers from primaries don’t precisely correspond to performance in a general election. But you’d still rather see the Democratic base heavily engaged in areas of the state where you need to win local races or reverse the trend toward Republicans. The overall data from the primary was good news for Democrats, but there’s still plenty of counties that remain a work in progress for a blue wave.

 

by Pat Rynard
Posted 7/8/18

2 thoughts on “Promising And Problematic Areas For Iowa Democrats

  1. I’m kind of bummed at the results, as it were, in Dubuque County. With all the activity we have going on (and what appears to be a strong and active Central Committe representing the ENTIRE county) it is disappointing that our registrations haven’t done better, and we certainly should be doing better than 35% turnout.
    Dems, we need to really work. Signs are positive, but it’s gonna require tons of effort!

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