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 thoughts on “The Most Shocking Number From Iowa’s Election Night

  1. 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.

  2. 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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