CEDAR RAPIDS — After more than a century of being reliably Republican red, Iowa is emerging as a true blue Democratic state in presidential elections.

Between the Civil War and the late 1980s, Iowans supported Republican presidential candidates in all but five elections. In six of the past seven races, however, Iowans voted for the Democratic presidential nominee.

This year, Iowa voters favored Democratic President Barack Obama over his GOP challenger Mitt Romney by a 52 percent to 46 percent split. Since Ronald Reagan carried Iowa in 1984, only George W. Bush in 2004 broke the Democratic lock on Iowa presidential politics.

The shift in Iowans’ voting pattern began about 80 years ago, according to historian Tom Morain.

The former director of the State Historical Society traces the roots of Democratic dominance in presidential elections to Iowans’ acceptance of federal farm programs during the Great Depression, Harold Hughes’ elections to the governor’s office and U.S. Senate and still-evolving demographic shifts.

State more urban

Overall, he and University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle point to increasing urbanization, higher education and mobility as factors in Iowans’ support for Democratic presidential candidates.

Morain, however, has another theory.

“This is sort of squishy, but I don’t think Iowa has participated in the same degree of hostility or anger or antipathy toward the federal government as some other regions, particularly the South,” he says. “Traditionally, Iowa has not been an angry state.

“Don’t ask me to document that, but I think we’re pragmatic. We ask, ‘What are the problems and how do we solve them?’ more so than thinking we have to have revenge on somebody.”

For generations, Iowans endorsed the Republican solutions to problems, Morain says. Prior to the 1950s, the Democratic Party in Iowa was “bleak,” and for the most part, the state was strongly Republican from Des Moines west.

“It was Harold Hughes’ victories (in the 1960s) that gave the Democratic Party an institutional base in the state,” he said.

The tipping point, according to Hagle, seems to have come on the heels of Iowa’s farm crisis.

“Iowa became less oriented to agriculture, and (the crisis) accelerated the movement of Iowans from farms to cities,” he said.

The same trend has played out, although more slowly, in other battleground states, Hagle said. In Virginia, for example, GOP presidential candidates won with the exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Rural Virginia remains a Republican stronghold. But as the northern Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C., grew, the voting pattern shifted. Obama carried the commonwealth in 2008 and again this year.

“Sometimes, those changes happen slowly,” Hagle said. “In Iowa, it seems to have happened more abruptly.”

Morain, now director of governmental relations for Graceland University in Lamoni, also thinks the increase in Iowans finishing K-12 education and attending college has played a role in changing voting patterns.

“Not that smarter people are Democrats,” he said. Higher education broadens an individual’s perspective, and they “have a less local perspective … (and) are oriented to a larger picture of the world.”

He also points to cultural changes that affect party identification.

Bellwether status

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

Iowa’s evangelical church tradition tends to be stronger in rural settings that are losing population, Morain said.

“As us old-timers kick off, we’re not doing a good job of converting the younger generation to our perspective,” he said. “That will be reflected in a decrease over the next 25 years in the traditional evangelical Christian influence.”

Mobility exposes people to other lifestyles and makes them more likely to accept diversity in their communities, Morain said.

None of these demographic shifts means Iowa will be permanently blue, according to Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who was just re-elected to a sixth term by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin.

“I think (Iowa’s) always going to be a bellwether state that we’re going to fight over,” King said during taping of the edition of Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press that aired this past weekend.

Being in the middle of the political spectrum and hosting the first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses will continue to give Iowans a loud voice in the presidential election process, King said.

“If we can hold that together, we can long make recommendations on Iowa values to the rest of the country,” he said.

Much will depend on the Republican Party’s response to the changing demographics, Morain said. The Iowa business community, which tends to lean Republican, is strong, and he sees urban areas that elect Republicans to local and state office.

“The strength of the Republican Party, traditionally, has been in the small towns and on the farms. That population is growing older and growing smaller,” he said. “So, I think the struggle is going to be in the urban areas. We are still a very competitive state. The fact we have gone Democratic in numerous elections is not an indicator that we are by any means a blue state.”