DES MOINES — The last time Iowa had a race for governor without an elected incumbent, the Democratic candidate won 62 counties and the blue counties dotted the map from river to river.
In this week’s midterm elections, even though the Democratic candidate lost by just 3 points, only 11 counties were blue, and they were all in central or eastern Iowa.
The divide between rural and urban voters in Iowa continues to sharpen. Democrats dominate in the state’s biggest cities, while Republicans own the rural areas. It's existed for more than a few election cycles, but the contrast has grown increasingly stark.
In the past six gubernatorial elections, starting with Democrat Tom Vilsack’s first victory in 1998, Democrats won 49, 68, 62, 9, 1 and 11 counties.
From 1998 to 2006, Republicans won counties almost exclusively in the western quarter of the state along the Missouri River. Since 2010, however, Republicans have branched out and Democrats have been relegated to winning largely in the big population areas: Polk, Story, Black Hawk, Linn, Johnson, Dubuque and Scott counties.
Iowa Democrats long have sought to drive up their advantages in urban areas to win statewide elections. But as the trending data shows, their opportunity to supplement their advantage with at least some victories in rural Iowa has shrunk.
Driven in part by demographics --- rural Iowans tend to be older, there are fewer minorities and a lower rate of college-educated adults, populations that tend to vote for more conservative candidates --- Iowa’s increasingly sharp rural-urban divide is not going away anytime soon, experts said.
“Just by demographics shifts, it is polarizing the rural-urban divide,” said David Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “I think that has been exacerbated by, it’s a well-known fact people get to choose their media these days. Since so many people who look and think alike live together ... it’s putting these giant bubbles around communities.”
The ever-shrinking success in rural Iowa has made it difficult for Democrats in statewide elections. They have not won a race for governor or U.S. Senator since 2008, Tom Harkin’s final victory before he retired from the U.S. Senate. Since then, Iowa Democrats are 0-for-6 in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.
Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a pair of entrenched Democratic incumbents, have won their statewide re-election bids during that time. And the state went for Democratic President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
After suffering significant electoral losses in 2014 and 2016, especially in rural Iowa, Democrats pledged to make a better effort with voters in rural areas of the state. Fred Hubbell, the Democrats’ candidate for governor this year and a former Des Moines business leader, campaigned throughout the state’s 99 counties. But he was only able to win in 11.
The areas of the state that have gone from blue to red do not necessarily represent voters who changed their political allegiances, experts said. It could be that Democratic voters have moved into the cities, leaving an increasingly conservative voting base in the rural areas.
“I still think it’s a larger trend in terms of the changing demographics,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “It seems like that’s where we’re headed, where you’re really seeing the divide as part of a larger pattern. ... For the short term, I think you’re going to see that rural-urban divide stay pretty clear.”
The split showed up on a micro level in races for the Iowa House. Democrats fell short of flipping the 10 seats they needed in order to gain a majority in the chamber, but were successful in urban areas --- particularly the Des Moines suburbs, where Democratic challengers defeated five Republican incumbents.
Democrats were unsuccessful in flipping seats in eastern Iowa, where they had hoped to win back districts that voted for Obama in 2012 and Republican President Donald Trump in 2016. Most of those districts are in rural counties.
State party leaders acknowledged the state’s growing urban-rural divide but neither, unsurprisingly, was ready to write off any parts of the state.
“I think as the population moves around, as the messages move around, the priorities, I don’t know if perhaps we have greater opportunities in different parts of the state where perhaps we didn’t see those opportunities before --- perhaps that’s true,” Republican Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer said. “But I think we always have elections that behave differently from the previous elections. That’s not unusual and the good news is we take nothing for granted. We’re working in all the districts in every campaign, every election to make sure that we’re doing our job at being good candidates. We choose good people, we encourage good people and then we help them to be as successful as they can.”
Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price noted victories in southeast Iowa as evidence Democrats are attempting to bounce back and expand the blue on Iowa’s electoral map.
“We still have work to do, but I think we ran some great candidates,” Price said. “What happened (Tuesday) is we got a great foundation to build upon and 2020 starts today. We’re going to start working and we’ll take a look at what happened Tuesday.”
The split seems likely to play a role in future Iowa elections, but it’s not all bad news for Democrats, experts said.
If the demographics shift continues, urban areas may become packed with Democratic voters and statewide Democratic candidates could have an easier time gaining enough votes to overcome their losses in rural pockets, which could continue to become more sparsely populated.
Dallas County, just west of Polk County and Des Moines, offers an example of Democrats’ hopes. Dallas is the fastest-growing county in the state and one of the fastest-growing in the country. In 2014, Branstad won Dallas County by 6,683 votes; this year, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds won Dallas County by just 1,415 votes.
Andersen drew a comparison to Illinois and New York, where Democrats do not have to venture outside their states’ biggest cities in order to win statewide elections. Iowa could be headed in a similar direction, Andersen said.
“Iowa is not that drastic right now,” Andersen said. “But ... as (urban areas) continue to grow it may become harder for Republican candidates who have to travel all over the state to round up their voters than Democrats who can stay pretty central.”