Iowa looms large in 2016 presidential race

State's six electoral votes seen as critical to outcome

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DES MOINES — Consider Iowa an overachiever in the nation’s Electoral College.

With only six of the 538 electoral votes in the 2016 presidential election, Iowa again will play a significant role in what is expected to be a close race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, given its place among the sub-cluster of battleground states that could swing November’s outcome either way.

“Iowa, for right now, is in play,” said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor.

“Normally, Iowa is the center of the political universe during caucus time and then the morning after, we fall off the face of the earth. We fall into a political black hole and disappear because Iowa’s six electoral votes normally don’t matter. But in a close election, a single electoral vote matters.

“We’re three months out, so there’s a long time to go, but if it looks to be a close election even six little electoral votes could make the difference.”

The U.S. Electoral College — established by the Constitution’s 12th amendment — is the institution that elects the president and vice president every four years based upon state-by-state popular vote outcomes in November’s general election. Electors, totaling 538, are apportioned to each of the 50 states as well as to the District of Columbia in numbers equal to the members of Congress — giving Iowa six for its four representatives and two senators.

It takes at least 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, but because there are a number of states that traditionally go “red” for Republican candidates or “blue” for Democrats, elections often come down to about 130 or fewer electoral votes contested in up to 10 “purple” states where both major political parties are competitive.

Iowa is one of those purple states again this year, with its voter registration numbers carved up in proximity among Democrats, Republicans and independent Iowans who declare no party affiliation. As of Aug. 1, 664,909 Iowans were identified as independents, 649,579 as Republicans and 615,365 as Democrats among the nearly 1.94 million active voter registrants tallied by the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

“Iowa does not vote reliably Democratic or Republican in presidential elections — some years it swings to the Democrats and some years it’s Republican, and therefore it’s worth investing a lot of money and even a little time coming to Iowa trying to push the voters over to your side and get those six electoral votes,” said Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt.

Evidence of Iowa’s importance was demonstrated by Trump’s trio of campaign stops in Iowa — including a duo appearance Friday with running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — over a nine-day period that also saw Clinton surrogates U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and actor Sean Astin of “Rudy” and “Lord of the Rings” movie fame campaign in Iowa on her behalf.

“I can’t think of a state our size that is in any better position than we are right now to command the attention of the leader of free world next year,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.

He noted that Iowa polls have shown Trump and Clinton locked in a dead heat.

“If indeed this election is close electorally, we’re going to be in as important of a position as we’ve ever been,” he said.

The biggest prize among the 2016 swing states is Florida with 29 electoral votes, along with Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire to lesser degrees.

If Trump can win Florida, Iowa becomes “almost a necessity” in his road map to the White House, Kaufmann said. If Clinton wins Florida, “We’re down to a hail-Mary pass, and absolutely he cannot win the presidency without Iowa,” he added.

There are other scenarios and theories on how the battleground states may play out, but political scientists point to the 2000 outcome in which Republican George Bush edged Democrat Al Gore in electoral votes of 271 to 266 as evidence of important a state with six electoral ballots can be in a tightly contested election.

“The whole game is to hang onto the states that you always do well in and not lose those, and then win enough swing states to get to 270,” Schmidt said.

What makes 2016 so hard to predict is that Trump has run an unconventional campaign that has confounded the research and traditional thinking about how to wage a successful political bid. Also, this year’s contest features a matchup between “very unpopular, untrusted candidates” that makes predicting turnout and other variables difficult.

“In the almost 50 years that I’ve been analyzing presidential elections, I’ve never seen a year when the past is not a very good predictor of what’s going to happen this year because you have a candidate who is different than any other candidate who has ever run for president, and you have two candidates who are so mistrusted that we don’t know if the voter turnout is going to be low or high, and so the best models that I’ve seen is that Hillary Clinton needs to hang on to all the states that Democrats normally win,” Schmidt said.

“If she wins in those and Florida, then she could become president.”

Eric Branstad, state director for Trump’s Iowa campaign, said Iowa is among the battleground states that factor heavily into the Donald Trump-Mike Pence strategy.

“We can certainly say that we are a priority for the campaign,” Branstad said. “With the time and attention that we are getting now and will be receiving here in the coming months, I can certainly see that — like in cycles past — we are a priority for the campaign and we will get the resources and attention that Iowa deserves.”

Kaufmann said Republicans are assembling “the largest ground game in Iowa history” that will include a focus on absentee ballots and get-out-the-vote efforts intended to erase a traditional edge held by Iowa Democrats. Likewise, Branstad said the Trump campaign will be opening an Urbandale headquarters, announcing staff hires and “putting the ultimate ground game together” to “do what it takes to win Iowa in November.”

On the other side, Bailey Romans, one of Clinton’s regional organizing directors in Iowa, said Democrats are building on President Obama’s successful campaign structure to recruit volunteers, knock on doors, make phone calls and connect with current and future Clinton supporters in Iowa.

“Iowa is important. We have had people working on this campaign working here since April, and we’re going to continue to be here until November,” Romans noted. “Hillary was here a ton during the caucuses. She visited the state a lot. She was all over the place, and hopefully we’ll be seeing her around some more.”

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