Des Moines, Iowa •Few states have changed politically with the head-snapping speed of Iowa. Heading into 2020, the question is whether it's going to change again.
In 2008, its voters propelled Barack Obama to the White House, as an overwhelmingly white state validated the candidacy of the first black president. A year later, Iowa's Supreme Court sanctioned same-sex marriage, adding a voice of Midwestern sensibility to a national shift in public sentiment. In 2012, Iowa backed Obama again.
All that change proved too much, too fast, and it came as the Great Recession punished agricultural areas, shook the foundations of rural life and stoked a roiling sense of grievance.
By 2016, Donald Trump easily defeated Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Republicans were in control of the governor’s mansion and state legislature and held all but one U.S. House seat. For the first time since 1980, both U.S. Senate seats were in GOP hands.
What happened? Voters were slow to embrace Obama’s signature health care law. The recession depleted college-educated voters as a share of the rural population, and Republicans successfully painted Democrats’ as the party of coastal elites.
Those forces combined for a swift Republican resurgence and helped create a wide lane for Trump.
The self-proclaimed billionaire populist ended up carrying Iowa by a larger percentage of the vote than in Texas, winning 93 of Iowa's 99 counties, including places like working-class Dubuque and Wapello counties, where no Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower had won.
But now, as Democrats turn their focus to Iowa’s kickoff caucuses that begin the process of selecting Trump’s challenger, could the state be showing furtive signs of swinging back? Caucus turnout will provide some early measures of Democratic enthusiasm, and of what kind of candidate Iowa’s Democratic voters — who have a good record of picking the Democratic nominee — believe has the best chance against Trump.
If Iowa’s rightward swing has stalled, it could be a foreboding sign for Trump in other upper Midwestern states he carried by much smaller margins and would need to win again.
“They’ve gone too far to the right and there is the slow movement back,” Tom Vilsack, the only two-term Democratic governor in the past 50 years, said of Republicans. “This is an actual correction."
Iowans unseated two Republican U.S. House members — and nearly a third — in 2018 during midterm elections where more Iowa voters in the aggregate chose a Democrat for federal office for the first time in a decade.
In doing so, Iowans sent the state’s first Democratic women to Congress: Cindy Axne, who dominated Des Moines and its suburbs, and Abby Finkenauer, who won in several working-class counties Trump carried.
Democrats won 14 of the 31 Iowa counties that Trump won in 2016 but Obama won in 2008, though Trump's return to the ballot in 2020 could change all that.
“We won a number of legislative challenge races against incumbent Republicans,” veteran Iowa Democratic campaign consultant Jeff Link said. “I think that leaves little question Iowa is up for grabs next year.”
There’s more going on in Iowa that simply a merely cyclical swing.
Iowa’s metropolitan areas, some of the fastest growing in the country over the past two decades, have given birth to a new political front where Democrats saw gains in 2018.
The once-GOP-leaning suburbs and exurbs, especially to the north and west of Des Moines and the corridor linking Cedar Rapids and the University of Iowa in Iowa City, swelled with college-educated adults in the past decade, giving rise to a new class of rising Democratic leaders.
“I don’t believe it was temporary,” Iowa State University economist David Swenson said of Democrats' 2018 gains in suburban Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. “I think it is the inexorable outcome of demographic and educational shifts that have been going on.”
The Democratic caucuses will provide a test of how broad the change may be.
“I think it would be folly to say Iowa is not a competitive state," said John Stineman, a veteran Iowa GOP campaign operative and political data analyst who is unaffiliated with the Trump campaign but has advised presidential and congressional campaigns over the past 25 years. “I believe Iowa is a swing state in 2020.”
For now, that is not a widely held view, as Iowa has shown signs of losing its swing state status.
In the 1980s, it gave rise to a populist movement in rural areas from the left, the ascent of the religious right as a political force and the start of an enduring rural-urban balance embodied by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
Now, after a decade-long Republican trend, there are signs of shifting alliances in people like Jenny O’Toole.
The 48-year-old insurance industry employee from suburban Cedar Rapids stood on the edge of the scrum surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden last spring, trying to get a glimpse as he shook hands and posed for pictures.
“I was a Republican. Not any more,” O’Toole said. “I’m socially liberal, but economically conservative. That’s what I’m looking for.”
O’Toole is among those current and new former Republicans who dot Democratic presidential events, from Iowa farm hubs to working-class river towns to booming suburbs.
Janet Cosgrove, a 75-year-old Episcopal minister from Atlantic, in western Iowa, and Judy Hoakison, a 65-year-old farmer from rural southwest Iowa, are Republicans who caught Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s recent trip.
If such voters are a quiet warning to Trump in Iowa, similar symptoms in Wisconsin and Michigan, where Democrats also made 2018 gains, could be even more problematic.
Vilsack has seen the stage change dramatically. After 30 years of Republican dominance in Iowa’s governor’s mansion, he was elected in 1998 as a former small-city mayor and pragmatic state senator.
An era of partisan balance in Iowa took hold, punctuated by Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s 4,144-vote victory in Iowa in 2000, and George W. Bush’s 10,059-vote re-election in 2004.
After the 2006 national wave swept Democrats into total Statehouse control for the first time in 50 years, the stage was set for Obama’s combination of generational change, his appeal to anti-Iraq War sentiment and the historic opportunity to elect the first African American president.
“We were like a conquering army, prepared to negotiate terms of surrender,” said Cedar Rapids Democrat Dale Todd, an early Obama supporter and adviser.
Todd was one of a collection of Iowa Democratic activists who gathered at a downtown Des Moines sports bar last year to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Obama's historic caucus campaign.
Just across the Des Moines River in the state Capitol, there was a reminder of how much the ground had shifted since those heady days.
Republicans control all of state government for the first time in 20 years. Part of their wholesale conservative agenda has included stripping public employee unions of nearly all bargaining rights, establishing new voter restrictions and outlawing abortion six weeks into a pregnancy.
It was in line with Republican takeovers in states such as Wisconsin that were completed earlier, but traced their beginnings to the same turbulent summer of 2009.
On a Wednesday in August that year, throngs flocked to Grassley’s typically quiet annual county visits to protest his work with Democrats on health care legislation.
Thousands representing the emerging Tea Party forced Grassley’s last event from a community center in the small town of Adel to the town park, where some booed the typically popular senator and held signs stating, “Grassley, you're fired.”
The events became a national symbol for uneasiness about the new president's signature policy goal.
The previous April, Iowa's nine-member Supreme Court — Democratic and Republican appointees — had unanimously declared same-sex marriage legal in the state. A year later, Christian conservatives successfully campaigned to oust the three Supreme Court justices facing retention, waving the marriage decision as their cause.
Four years later, Democrats had high expectations of holding the retiring Harkin's Senate seat. But Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley lacked Harkin's populist appeal, and was beaten by state Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iraq War veteran from rural Iowa who painted Braley as an elitist lawyer.
By 2016, Republicans had completed their long-sought statehouse takeover, in part by beating longtime Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.
“We tried in many cases to win suburbia, but we just couldn't lay a glove on it," Gronstal said. “We just could not figure out how to crack it in Iowa."
The answer for Democrats in Iowa is much the same as the rest of the country: growing, vote-rich suburbs.
Dallas County, west of Des Moines, has grown by 121% since 2000, converting from a checkerboard of farms into miles of car dealerships, strip malls, megachurches and waves of similarly styled housing developments.
It had been a Republican county. However, last year, long-held Republican Iowa House districts in Des Moines’ western suburbs fell to Democrats.
It was the culmination of two decades of shifting educational attainment with political implications.
Since 2000, the number of Iowans with at least a college degree in urban and suburban areas grew by twice the rate of rural areas, according to U.S. Census data and an Iowa State University study.
Last year, a third of urban and suburban Iowans had a college diploma, up from 25% at the dawn of the metropolitan boom in 2000. Rural Iowans had inched up to just 20% from 16% during that period.
“The more that occurs, the more you get voter participation leaning toward Democratic outcomes than has historically been in the past,” Swenson said, noting the higher likelihood of college-educated voters to lean Democratic.
Since 2016 alone, registered Democrats in Dallas County have increased 15%, to Republicans’ 2%. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the county, but independent voters have leaped by 20% and for the first time outnumber Republicans.
“There is now a third front,” Gronstal said. “We can fight in those toss-up rural areas, hold our urban base, but now compete in those quintessentially suburban districts.”
Though Trump’s return to the ballot in 2020 shakes up the calculus, his approval in Iowa has remained around 45% or lower. A sub-50 rating is typically problematic for an incumbent.
Another warning for Trump, GOP operative Stineman noted, is The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll’s November finding that only 76% of self-identified Republicans said they would definitely vote to re-elect him next year.
With no challenger and 10 months until the election, a lot can change.
“Still, that’s one in four of your family that’s not locked down,” Stineman said.
There are also signs Iowa Democrats have shaken some of the apathy that helped Trump and hobbled Clinton in Iowa in 2016.
Democratic turnout in 2018 leaped from the previous midterm in 2014 from 57% to 68%, according to the Iowa Secretary of State. Republican turnout, which is typically higher, also rose, but by a smaller margin.
Overall turnout in Iowa, as in more reliably Democratic-voting presidential states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, was down in 2016, due mostly to a downturn in Democratic participation.
“The trend was down, across the board," said Ann Selzer, who has conducted The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll for more than 25 years. "So it doesn’t take much to create a Democratic victory in these upper Midwestern states.”
“I think the success in the midterms kind of made people on the Democratic side believe that ‘we can do it,’” Selzer said.
Perhaps, but Trump has his believers, too.