October 25, 2016
In six of the last seven presidential elections, the battleground state of Iowa has fallen the Democrats’ way: only in 2004 was it won by a Republican, incumbent president George W. Bush. But in 2016, GOP nominee Donald Trump could tip the state into the GOP column. He was leading Democrat Hillary Clinton through much of October in this lightly polled state.
The results from the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the presidential nominating contests in both parties every four years, don’t offer a lot of clues for Trump’s competitiveness in the Hawkeye State. Trump finished second (24 percent) in the GOP caucuses to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (28 percent), and just edged out the third-place candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (23 percent). Both of Trump’s former rivals have endorsed him, although not with much enthusiasm.
According to the television network entrance poll, a survey of caucus-goers of both parties as they entered their caucus sites, the New York celebrity did not excite white evangelicals, a vital piece of the GOP coalition in the Hawkeye State: Trump tied Rubio among white evangelical GOP caucus-goers capturing 21 percent, while Cruz won 33 percent. Moreover, Trump’s signature issue, immigration, was cited by only 13 percent of the Iowa GOP caucus attendees and the most important issue facing the country, trailing government spending (32 percent), economy and jobs (27 percent) and terrorism (25 percent).
Trump is helped in Iowa because it is a less racially diverse state than most others: almost 90 percent of the population identifies itself as white only (and non-Hispanic, non-Latino). But race alone doesn’t drive Trump’s strength in Iowa. Another battleground state, New Hampshire, is “whiter,” but Clinton leads in the polls in that state.
What Trump has going for him in Iowa is that many of its voters are from small town and rural America. Indeed, according to the exit poll of Iowa voters from the 2012 presidential election, more than half, 53 percent, resided in small cities or rural communities. In that same election, only 38 percent of New Hampshire voters fell into that category. In the 2016 GOP caucuses and primaries Trump demonstrated considerable appeal in these communities and his vow to look out for “forgotten” Americans resonates in these kinds of places where economic growth has lagged and jobs have declined. (While there are many small municipalities in New Hampshire, these are essentially commuter towns for vibrant Boston or Nashua. More than half, 51 percent, of New Hampshire voters in 2012 were categorized as suburbanites, compared to 20 percent in Iowa, according to the exit poll.)
Given the state’s rural population and farming background, it’s also not surprising that a relatively low share of Iowa’s adult population, just over one-in-four, holds a 4-year college or post-graduate degree. Pre-election polls have shown that Trump tends to do worse among college graduates than non-college graduates.
Clinton has never been fully embraced by Iowans. She finished third in the 2008 Democratic presidential caucuses behind Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. And while she edged out Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic contest, it was by the narrowest margin in the history of the party caucuses.
Iowans also have an isolationist streak. The biggest factor in Clinton’s failure in the 2008 caucuses was probably her vote in the Senate in favor of the use of force in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a vote she unambiguously labeled a mistake before she undertook her 2016 presidential bid. Trump’s willingness to reassess security arrangements like NATO may not be such a liability in this state. Even Trump’s apparent “bromance” with Russian leader Vladimir Putin may not be a big handicap for him in Iowa. The state was mostly enthralled when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited during the height of the Cold War, and many Iowans objected to President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 grain embargo against the former Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan.
James A. Barnes is a senior writer for Ballotpedia and co-author of the 2016 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.