DES MOINES — Is Iowa turning red?
In recent elections, the state has been perennially politically purple. It has voted for Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. For years, its congressional delegation was divided equally by Democrats and Republicans. It has a Republican-controlled state House and Democratic-controlled state Senate.
But Republicans in Iowa have been making gains lately.
In 2014, the GOP flipped a pair of congressional seats, putting Republicans in five of six of the state’s federal offices. And since the 2012 election, Republicans have taken — and steadily built upon — a lead over Democrats in active registered voters in the state.
It is possible, based on polling more than three weeks from the 2016 election, that Republicans could maintain their 5-1 advantage at the U.S. Capitol, flip control of the Iowa Senate to give the GOP full control of the Iowa Capitol and be one of the few swing states to go for controversial Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
So is this a short-term bump for Republicans in Iowa or a long-term trend?
Opinions vary, including among political analysts in the state.
“The short answer is yes, I think Iowa is in the midst of a transition from purple to red. This might be the last election where Iowa is not classified as ‘leaning Republican,’” said David Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “It has been a long time since a Democrat has done well in one of the more prominent state-level races, it looks like the Republican party is poised to capture the state Senate this year — as well as continuing to hold the governor’s office and (state House) — and likely hold on to two congressional seats that were very at-risk. ...
“Iowa is defying the trend of most other battleground states and is becoming more Republican.”
Other analysts said that even if Iowa has a second election that favors Republicans, it’s not necessarily an indicator of a long-term trend.
“Basically, I do not think the state is shifting from purple to red. After all, part of being a swing state is that you swing from side to side on occasion,” said John Epperson, a political science professor at Simpson College. “I still think that Iowa may go for (Democratic presidential candidate Hillary) Clinton, but whether that happens or not, it will be a close outcome.
“The demographics of the state are favorable to Trump, so that is a factor in this election cycle. But long-term, I think there are trends which tilt to Democrats — increase in minorities, especially Hispanics, the fact that Democrats are more attractive to younger voters, etc.”
Here is what the data say:
• From 2007 to the present, Iowa’s congressional delegation went from four Democrats and three Republicans to one Democrat and five Republicans.
The turning point was 2014, when Republicans won two open-seat races created by longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement. The GOP won Harkin’s old seat and a U.S. House seat in heavily Democratic eastern Iowa. The state also lost a House seat after the 2010 U.S. census.
Although the election is still weeks away, polling suggests that one-to-five ratio very well could hold.
• Republicans surpassed Democrats in active registered voters in the state shortly after the 2012 presidential election. Since then, the GOP has steadily increased that advantage. As of Oct. 1, there were 33,760 more actively voting registered Republicans than Democrats.
• Iowa could go to Trump in this election, which would break trends for the state and nationally.
Iowa went for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and to the Democratic candidate in six of the past seven presidential elections. So, going for Trump would be a change of pace.
It would also buck a national swing-state trend in this election. Clinton leads Trump in most of the perennial toss-up states, but not in Iowa.
Polling in Iowa has shown a close race between Trump and Clinton, with more recent polls showing Trump ahead.
But there has not yet been a poll published that surveyed voters in Iowa after news broke of a 2005 video on which Trump can be heard making lewd comments about using his celebrity status to grope women and multiple women coming forward in the days that followed claiming Trump touched or kissed them inappropriately.
Republicans, naturally, think momentum continues to build after their big victories in Iowa in 2014.
“It’s safe to say the leaves aren’t the only thing turning red here in Iowa this November,” said Lindsay Jancek, a spokeswoman for the national Republican Party. “Voter registration numbers also point to a shift in more conservative-leaning voters as well as absentee requests, proving enthusiasm to elect Republicans up and down the ticket in November is alive and well in Iowa.”
State Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said he is encouraged and hopeful but also slightly guarded in his hopes that a long-term trend is developing.
“It feels like a long-term trend, to be as subjective as I can about this question. No one ever knows if any trend is going to last from one election cycle to another election cycle,” Kaufmann said. “I’m not going to break out any wine bottles yet.”
Democrats are not conceding anything in the 2016 election. They think Clinton can defeat Trump in Iowa, especially in the wake of the video and allegations of inappropriate contact, and that Democrats can retake some of those congressional seats.
They point to early voting numbers: As of Friday, Democrats had cast more than 78,000 early votes, while Republicans had cast more than 43,000.
“Early-voting results show Iowans are overwhelmingly rejecting Donald Trump and supporting Hillary Clinton and Democrats up and down the ticket,” state Democratic Party chairwoman Andy McGuire said. “Trump continues to hemorrhage support from Republicans — especially women — who are outraged by his admission of sexual assault and his increasingly dark campaign. Democrats, on the other hand, are united and voting early in droves for Hillary Clinton and Democrats who believe that we are stronger together and must work with each other to solve our biggest problems.”
Come what may in 2016, Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said the election results will not necessarily reflect greater trends.
“If the Republicans do reasonably well this year, yeah, we may be somewhat less purple or a little more red. But that doesn’t say anything itself about the presidential race,” Goldford said. “Iowa could well go for Trump. But is that because of the highly peculiar nature of the race this year or the start of a trend? We won’t know until 2020 (and the next presidential election).”
Donna Hoffman, who heads the political science department at the University of Northern Iowa, said regardless of whether Iowa looks purple, red or blue at any given time, what’s noteworthy is the state’s typically competitive elections. Hoffman said that’s what truly makes Iowa a toss-up or swing state.
And that’s not likely to change, Hoffman said, regardless of what happens in November.
She said one way to look at it is Iowa’s Democratic lean in recent presidential elections does not necessarily make Iowa a blue state, because the races have been competitive.
“So, we see lots of action in terms of the general election in presidential years because our voters are up for grabs,” Hoffman said. “Even though we only have six electoral votes, in the current state of Electoral College math, even the smaller states can be significant in getting to 270.”