In a year of non-stop political twists and turn, the most bizarre development of all may yet come in the Iowa governor’s race: actual policy issues are determining who wins the race.
That’s what appears to be the case, anyway, with just six weeks remaining before the November election. The latest Des Moines Register poll shows Fred Hubbell with a narrow lead over Governor Kim Reynolds, but it’s the breakdown of voter attitudes on Medicaid and personal attacks on Hubbell that tell the larger story.
The Register polled how voters felt about the biggest lines of attack being used in the campaign on both major candidates. Reynolds’ got much worse marks from respondents on the three matters relating to state policies.
A full 70% of voters said that Reynolds’ handling of privatized Medicaid was a problem, including 51% that said it was a “big problem.” Another 63% said the same when asked if Reynolds “has mismanaged the budget and shortchanged needed government services such as education and healthcare,” with 51% also calling that a “big problem.” And 62% said that Reynolds hasn’t “established her own agenda for the state of Iowa.”
When it came to the main criticisms of Hubbell, the questions focused mostly on personal matters. That’s consistent with what the Reynolds campaign has run their negative ads against Hubbell on. So far, they haven’t really targeted his policy stances on things like healthcare or collective bargaining.
On that front, Hubbell’s largest weakness was on his tax returns. 66% of respondents said that was an issue for Hubbell, with 36% saying it was a “big problem.” Meanwhile, only 49% of voters said his “enormous wealth” was a problem (25% a “big problem”) and 51% thought closing down Younkers stores while “enriching himself” was problematic (22% a “big problem”).
While those responses are still warning signs for Hubbell, the number of voters saying personal aspects of Hubbell’s wealth and business background is a “big problem” is noticeably smaller than those who feel the same about Reynolds’ handling of state policy.
And that’s likely a major factor in Reynolds’ poor standing in the poll. It’s still a very close race with enough undecideds to easily sway the vote either way, but polling at 41% six weeks out as a quasi-incumbent has to be very concerning for Reynolds. It’s also interesting that she’s behind in the matchup with Hubbell, considering her favorability is at 45% favorable, 37% unfavorable, and 47% said the state is on the right track, compared to 42% wrong track.
In years past, a tried-and-true strategy for winning an election was to pitch yourself as the relatable candidate people could trust; knocking down your opponent meant undermining their personal credibility. That’s an oversimplification of things, of course, but we can all remember instances where the more “likable” candidate won, despite their policy positions. Joni Ernst prevailed with her farm girl image; Bruce Braley got cast as arrogant and out-of-touch. A single gaffe on the campaign trail – run over and over again in negative TV ads – can overshadow any and all of the actual policies a candidate is campaigning on.
Reynolds has looked to replicate a similar approach all throughout her campaign: small-town girl who worked as a waitress, got her college degree late in life, reformed her bad drinking habits and became governor. Meanwhile, she’s framed Hubbell as a rich, secretive elitist who cares more about his own money than the lives of Iowans.
But voters just aren’t buying it, at least not so far.
In a different year, maybe those distinctions (real and imagined) between the candidates’ personal lives, biography and likability would determine who’s in the governor’s office in 2019. But Republicans appear to have just screwed up the state that badly that voters aren’t having it (many also seem to simply not believe the attacks on Hubbell). They’ve seen enough of the consequences of all-Republican rule in their day-to-day lives that they’re making their choice for governor based on what policies each candidate supports… imagine that.
With the way things are going right now, privatized Medicaid looks to be Reynolds’ undoing in 2018. But Republicans may also determine that they committed way too much overreach on a variety of issues upon taking full control of Iowa government. Add up all the opposition to collective bargaining changes, Planned Parenthood defunding, education under-funding, slashed healthcare programs and more, and you have a lot of voters who have been wronged in some way by Reynolds’ agenda.
So, expect the race to continue to play out as it is. Hubbell keeps his focus on blasting Reynolds’ handling of Medicaid and the budget, while Reynolds tries to switch voters’ attentions to personal matters. Turning this back into a battle of personalities may be Reynolds’ only hope to pull out a win, but it’s an uphill battle given the real-life consequences of her governorship.
by Pat Rynard