Iowa, the Hawkeye State, has historically been a key battleground in America’s presidential races. The state voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000 and Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 – both winning by less than one percent. Then, in 2008 and 2012, Iowans voted for Democratic President Obama by significant margins. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did not fare as well, with Republican President Trump winning the state in 2016 by a near double-digit margin. This marked the worst loss for a Democratic presidential candidate in Iowa since Walter Mondale in 1984.
The Iowa delegation started the 21st Century in the 106th Congress with five members and a 4-1 Republican majority. The political makeup then swung throughout the 2000s, with Democrats holding a 3-2 majority from 2007-2013. In 2013, the Iowa delegation lost a member and, according to Tim Hagle, professor of political science at the University of Iowa, the state may risk losing another member by 2030. Iowa has had a fluctuating number of congressional delegates for some time, having dropped to four in the 113th Congress. The delegation loss is due to the state’s relatively slow growth respective to the rest of the country.
Recent history has shown that Iowa’s congressional delegation majorities have generally shifted in tandem with majority party control in Congress. Democrats gained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2007, lost it in 2010, and gained it back in 2019.
Senate seats were split, one to one, from 1985 until Senator Harkin’s retirement in 2015. Now, both senators are Republican, with Senator Joni Ernst winning her 2014 election by almost 10 points, 52.2 percent to 43.7 percent. This large margin is congruent with overall support for Democrats from rural voters in the state, which has declined by over 20 points from approximately -5 percent to approximately -28 percent from 2000 to 2016.
A number of recent state election results – including both of Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s gubernatorial wins – point to increasing Republican momentum as the state’s demographics shift. While Iowa is well-known for its rural characteristics and agriculture, there is an increasingly polarized urban-rural divide being exacerbated by shifting population demographics. Election maps have shown deeper red rural communities and deeper blue urban cities. Rural voters in Iowa are older and more conservative, while younger Iowans are choosing to live in densely populated urban cities and lean more Democratic.
Democrats have previously dominated in the state. Iowa helped elect President Obama to his first and second terms, and he himself credited Iowa for “igniting his unlikely rise to the presidency.” In 2008, former President Obama won more votes than any presidential candidate ever had in Iowa’s history, beating Senator John McCain 54 percent to 44.7 percent.
The 2012 election saw a narrower match up, but Iowa still ultimately helped elect former President Obama to his second term. Rural Democratic support in the state dipped to -1.9 percent that year from the 2008 election, but he still won all six electoral votes and carried the state 52.1 percent to 46.5 percent against Republican Mitt Romney.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton did not fare as well as Obama in her presidential contest – losing to President Donald Trump by almost 10 points, 41.7 percent to 51.1 percent. This significant dive in support aligns with a sharp decline in rural support for her candidacy.
For President Obama – and many other previous presidents – the Iowa caucus has played a major role in successfully winning the presidency. As the first state to hold its primary or caucus each year, Iowa is also the first test for presidential hopefuls. On the 10-year anniversary of his 2008 win, former President Barack Obama called the Iowa caucuses the highlight of his political career, saying, “To me, that was a more powerful night than the night I was elected president.”