The Most Shocking Number From Iowa’s Election Night

Democrats were feeling good early on last night.

Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer had both made history in their congressional victories. J.D. Scholten was actually leading Steve King. Democrats swept a series of Iowa House races in the Des Moines suburbs. Fred Hubbell jumped out to a big lead when Polk County came in fast.

But as the evening wore on, the mood soured. Kim Reynolds picked up steam as rural counties reported, and she started winning a handful of blue-collar Eastern Iowa counties that Democrats needed to hold. Eventually, she won.


Many Democrats were stunned that both Finkenauer and Axne could win hard-fought, competitive races and Hubbell would still lose. That would take a lot of split-ticket voting to produce that result.

And that’s exactly what happened. Starting Line will do deeper dives into all of these results, but let’s start off with a story about the most shocking number from election night: 88,777.

That’s the difference in the margin of votes cast in Democrats’ favor for the congressional races over the governor’s race.

Here’s how the votes broke down for each party’s congressional candidate in those races (these numbers are from the Secretary of State’s website as of Wednesday just before noon):

CD 1  169,348  152,940
CD 2  171,054  133,010
CD 3  169,886  164,656
CD 4  146,698  157,221
Total  656,986  607,827

Abby Finkenauer, Dave Loebsack, Cindy Axne and J.D. Scholten combined for a 49,153 vote lead over the combined votes for Rod Blum, Chris Peters, David Young and Steve King.

Now here’s the final statewide totals for the governor’s race and how they compare:

Hubbell Reynolds
Gov 623,009 662,633
Diff from Congressonal -33,970 54,807

That’s a net swing of 88,777 votes to the Republicans from the congressionals to the gubernatorial.

Of course, for those following Iowa politics at all, that’s not necessarily a fair reflection on how Hubbell did. Peters had a poorly-funded campaign in the 2nd District, so Loebsack was always going to over-perform there (as he typically does). And King’s free-fall in the final weeks of the campaign meant that Scholten was likely to pick up way more votes in the 4th District than the rest of the ticket. The congressional candidates were pretty much certain to win more votes, but the final number is noteworthy.

What this does show is just how many ticket splitters were out there in Iowa this year for some of the biggest races. That’s fascinating, and has implications for lots of state races going forward.

I totaled up the specific county numbers in the 1st District to see the difference between Finkenauer and Hubbell. Since the 1st District was a tight contest between Finkenauer and Blum, that might reveal some interesting early trends.

Here’s their vote totals by county (if this doesn’t show up properly, you can view the spreadsheet online here):

Blum Finkenauer Reynolds Hubbell Reynolds Diff Hubbell Diff
Allamakee  3,069  2,346  3,321  2,160  252 -186
Benton  6,460  4,696  6,839  4,481  379 -215
Black Hawk  22,079  29,615  22,762  29,209  683 -406
Bremer  5,893  5,159  6,205  4,981  312 -178
Buchanan  4,164  3,972  4,397  3,862  233 -110
Clayton  4,295  3,282  4,486  2,951  191 -331
Delaware  4,472  2,805  4,775  2,663  303 -142
Dubuque  19,257  22,318  21,068  20,503  1,811 -1,815
Fayette  4,140  3,678  4,504  3,421  364 -257
Howard  1,813  1,518  1,985  1,358  172 -160
Iowa  4,185  3,087  4,483  2,950  298 -137
Jackson  4,476  3,786  4,739  3,566  263 -220
Jones  4,486  3,781  4,764  3,647  278 -134
Linn  40,526  57,119  42,216  56,196  1,690 -923
Marshall  7,121  6,606  7,240  7,090  119 484
Mitchell  2,505  1,827  2,699  1,696  194 -131
Poweshiek  4,034  3,933  4,148  3,966  114 33
Tama  3,743  3,201  3,893  3,183  150 -18
Winneshiek  4,360  5,092  4,835  4,777  475 -315
Worth  1,861  1,520  2,036  1,374  175 -146
 152,939  169,341  161,395  164,034  8,456 -5,307

Overall, Hubbell got 5,307 fewer votes than Finkenauer, while Reynolds racked up 8,456 more votes than Blum. Hubbell only did better in Marshall and Poweshiek counties, but that is almost certainly due to media markets. Those are the only two counties that fall in the Des Moines media market; all of the 1st District TV ads ran in the Cedar Rapids media market.

Now, Hubbell did take some sizable hits in Dubuque and Linn counties when you look at just raw votes. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as he actually came close to Finkenauer’s percentages there. For example, Finkenauer took 57% of the vote in Linn County; Hubbell had 55% there.

Let’s look at the counties based on percentages of the vote, sorted by the counties that Hubbell fell behind Finkenauer the worst in:

Hubbell % Diff Blum % Abby % Reynolds % Hubbell %
Howard -5% 52% 44% 57% 39%
Worth -5% 53% 44% 58% 39%
Allamakee -4% 54% 42% 59% 38%
Clayton -4% 55% 42% 57% 38%
Dubuque -4% 45% 52% 49% 48%
Winneshiek -4% 44% 52% 49% 48%
Fayette -3% 51% 45% 55% 42%
Jackson -3% 53% 45% 55% 42%
Mitchell -3% 56% 41% 60% 38%
Benton -2% 56% 41% 59% 39%
Delaware -2% 60% 37% 62% 35%
Iowa -2% 55% 41% 59% 39%
Jones -2% 52% 44% 55% 42%
Linn -2% 40% 57% 42% 55%
Black Hawk -1% 42% 56% 43% 55%
Bremer -1% 52% 45% 54% 44%
Buchanan -1% 49% 47% 52% 46%
Tama -1% 52% 45% 54% 44%
Poweshiek 0% 49% 48% 50% 48%
Marshall 1% 50% 47% 49% 48%
Total -2% 46% 51% 48% 49%

It was largely the counties in the rural northeast part of the district that Hubbell underperformed Finkenauer by percentage of the vote the most. Many of those counties, including Howard and Allamakee, were some of those places where Republicans saw the largest swings to them with Trump in the entire country back in 2016.

Hubbell fell behind in Dubuque, though that’s also Finkenauer’s home county and where her state legislative district is (yes, it’s Blum’s home too, but it always seemed like Finkenauer got a better advantage out of it). But Hubbell stayed pretty close with Finkenauer’s percentages in the two other large counties of Black Hawk and Linn.

So, that’s how Hubbell lost while the congressionals won by the numbers. But why did that happen?

That’s a more subjective question to which we may not know the exact answer, but we can take some guesses. Among them could be:

  • Voters wanted a check on Trump, but thought Iowa was generally on the right track.
  • Reynolds’ closing TV ads were more effective.
  • Outside GOP groups’ ads that attacked Finkenauer and Axne were so over-the-top that they backfired. The governor’s race didn’t have as incendiary of ads.
  • Voters wanted to elect more women.
  • The Democratic congressional candidates were better at exciting voters.
  • The lack of straight-ticket voting cut down on waves for either party.

There’s probably a lot more reasons, all of which played small parts here and there to come together for last night’s results. When we get to drill down into precinct-level data, we may be able to make better-informed guesses. For now, this gives at least some sense of how it all happened.

Starting Line will dig into more election results as the week continues (after I catch up on some sleep).


by Pat Rynard
Posted 11/7/18

22 Comments on "The Most Shocking Number From Iowa’s Election Night"

  • Several thoughts about this:

    * The “Hubbell” name means something in Des Moines, but almost nothing in Eastern Iowa.
    * I think Hubbell’s end-game ad strategy was really bad, specifically regarding “roll back all the tax cuts”.
    * It definitely helped that Kim Reynolds was a woman.
    * I’ve heard that the ridiculously pro-life bills passed helped in rural areas as well.

  • May I be lazy and ask you to do the math? How many people voted for representative but not governor,or vice versa? I was watching the results last night on the SOS site and saw discrepancies in votes cast for other state-wide vs governor, but didn’t download the spreadsheet to run all the numbers. Thanks!

  • Thank you for doing this helpful analysis and number-crunching, now and in the future. In a couple of days, after I can stop moaning softly and ingesting chocolate, I’ll be very interested.

    And I kind of hope we can now permanently lose the phrase “blue wave,” unless it actually was helpful. It only made me nervous, and the nervousness, alas, was justified.

    • I never did believe a “blue wave” was coming. I think it was just a term to make activists feel good. Especially the activist that haven’t been active very long. they wanted something to make them feel good and continue on being active. The term “blue wave” ignored some of the realities in campaigning and elections. I hope it goes away for the next election. Democrats need to focus on what is important and what will win elections. A good start is with candidates. More moderates will help. Better marketing techniques will help too. Better and more moderate candidates, better advertising and marketing techniques and of course better legislation during the legislative session.. Democrats need to work on their caucus system too as it is confusing for anyone wanting to be a first time activist.. Democrats can be their own worst enemy and not realize it or want to realize it..

  • Excellent analysis! I was wondering about the Hubbell-Congressional District vote comparison by county, and voila, you’ve done it so well. I’ve been looking at Finkenauer vs. Hubbell on policy ideas for reviving the rural and small-town economies, and Finkenauer put a lot more emphasis on this. Hubbell spent a lot of time on Medicaid privatization, certainly an important issue, but perhaps displacing emphasis on his plans for rural counties.

    • I think the Democratic Party wanted our candidates to put a lot of focus on heath care. The party ignored some of the important local issues facing different parts of the state. Health care may be important in one are of the country and not so much in another. In Iowa health care is important but issues concerning what small towns and rural areas are just a important. Personally I think we Democrats need to spend an equal or more amount of time on issues concerning rural voters. This is still a rural state and will continue to be for a long time. Rural voters aren’t concerned as much about mental health issues and “right to work laws”. Farmers are concerned about what effects their bottom line and what taxes they have to pay.. In the gov’s race we Dems were ahead until the rural votes came in. Does that tell we Dems something?

      • When Hubbell first started out and that was when he ran in the primary he talked a lot about reviving rural communities but after he won the primary a lot of that campaign talk disappeared and mental health and health care seemed to take center state. It was like he abandoned rural communities. His vote total in the rural area proved it as that is where is lost the momentum. It is just difficult to win the normally Republican rural Iowa. Other Iowa Democratic governors have won it. They must have had some strategy to win those votes.

  • Could there have been voting machine fraud? I’m not saying there was, since I can’t know, but there’s always a possibility if something seems suspicious in those far western counties. We know from lots of evidence that the machines are easily tampered with and, in the absence of paper ballots, can’t be verified.

    • But there are paper ballots, and they continue to exist and are auditable after they are read by the scantron machines. Moreover, if you are going to commit voter fraud, why would you let Finkenauer and a bunch of Democrats statewide — including Rob Sand, who creates some potential to be a thorn in Reynolds’ side — win? There really isn’t anything “suspicious” about ticket splitting; Iowa has a long history of it. The important thing for activists, potential candidates, and campaign staff/advisors is to try and find the patters that explain it so it can be better addressed in 2 years.

      • You let some win so that it seems like you didn’t commit voter fraud. I’m not saying that there was voter fraud (nor am I ruling it out), but that is why some Dems would win.

        • And you are misusing the term “voter fraud.” You mean to say “election fraud,” in which machines are programmed to give certain results instead of the actual results.

  • Hubbell may have been the wrong candidate to run because of his urban roots, wealth, and refusal to release his tax returns which would have made it only more obvious how rich he is. We needed a qualified rural woman candidate with some of the positions and energy of Cindy. In order to win, the Democrats need to encourage the right candidates to run if they have any. Running compromised candidates like Clinton while discouraging ones like Sanders makes it possible for people like Trump to win.

    • Please explain exactly what a qualified rural woman is? Seriously I would like to know the elusive answer to this question.

      • Good question. I don’t know any to cite as examples but ideally it would be someone who lived on a farm, shared the ideals and concerns that Iowans care about, had some significant accomplishments, and had the ability to energize people like Axne and Sanders can. She also would need good advisers on the critical problems and how to solve them. Kathy Glasson had some good qualities whereas Andy McGuire did not. At least we didn’t go down that road!

  • I find these results just plain weird. I’d love to see the same breakdown for District 4 (Steve King’s District), if for no other reason than to see where Scholten did well and whether King’s “coattails” (can a downballot candidate claim to have coattails?) contributed to a Reynolds surge.
    As our County Democratic Chair said, “Take a break for about a week. Unwind, chill out, decompress – then start working on 2020.” To which I’ll add, “and learn a lot from these numbers, as weird as they are”

  • The number crunching will only give us a partial explanation of this election. We must also
    consider the emotional factors that cause rural citizens to vote the way they do year after year.
    I call this the “Iowa Stubborn” factor. It is obvious that many voters are resistant to change
    because of outdated ideas and long-standing prejudice against certain groups. They learn a lot of these attitudes from family, friends, cable TV and churches. The Internet brings out the worst
    in some people, and then we have to deal with lies and racism from politicians and Fox News.
    People become more confused and afraid of change, and they cannot face the reality of our
    complex world. So they stay with what appears to be a safe choice and they rely on emotions
    instead of intelligence to make a decision.

  • Medicare for all is the winning strategy for 2020. Doesn’t matter that top down economics never worked. People don’t get it. People do get that if they can’t get affordable health care nothing else really matters as the threat of wiping out a lifetime of savings from getting sick is something we all get and fear. Axne campaigned on health care, Hubbell on economics. Independents and progressive Dems are sick of gutless middle of the road Dems who’d rather appease Repugs than embrace Progressives. I’m 64 and the middle is currently about 5,000 miles to the right of where it used to be because Dems have been gutless my entire life. You can’t out argue tea party nut jobs/Trump supporters on their terms. Facts are irrelevant to them and their supporters. Ignore them and pound the single message of medicare for all. The Repugs will cry about potential costs but as we just witnessed, people are voting for their health care and the economics of it really doesn’t matter when it comes to voting. It’s all about health care now, not the economy.

  • The one reason for the Hubbell lost that was not mentioned is less TV and radio advertising in the rural markets. That might have been a mistake. The absence of straight ticket voting probably did hurt Fred Hubbell in the more urbanized areas.

  • And bottom line, Kim is a better candidate than the GOP Congressmen. Not a criticism of them per se but the fact that Kim is more personable, comes across as truly caring and ‘real’ plus can talk legislative & policy details with the best of them without sounding like a wonk. Frankly, she potentially can become one of the best Gov’s in Iowa history. Terry chose very well (always astute) when he tapped her as Lt. Gov.

  • I really do believe women have found their voice in electing women, as to whether they do well or not remains to be seen, but I certainly hope for the best! As to Hubbell, there is the plain and simple fact if you are wealthy and successful in Iowa, you have to be a whole lot closer to the ground to get elected. When your money becomes the reason you are running and not your experience representing people you are at a disadvantage. From the stand point of Reynolds, she should have been easy to toss had there been a candidate that had something of a track record of experience with the voting public and who did not rely so heavily on Polk and Dallas County. The fiefdom support in the Des Moines Metro area is important; but it isn’t Chicago! You still have to do the Beto thing and get out there and convince people who haven’t seen a Democratic candidate even take the time to stop in for a listen. Sending your second won’t do, you have to touch base for those few votes you will get for just showing up! If you give a decent argument for what your program is, the better the numbers will be. You can be smart as all get out, and folks like Harold Hughes were, but you still have to be able to communicate that you know what you are talking about in a way rural people will see you are working for their best interest and not just Des Moines.

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