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How We Got Here: Iowa voting patterns

It's been the no-party voters who've determined statewide elections

    I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
    Iowa Policy
    Dec 19, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Iowans vote.

    In 2017, the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office reported that 1,572,633 registered voters made their choice in person or by absentee ballots in the 2016 general election. By a 51 percent to 42 percent margin, they favored Republican Donald Trump.

    That was up only slightly from the 1,572,198 who voted in the 2012 election, according to a 2013 report, when a majority of Iowa voters supported President Barack Obama’s re-election. Turnout in 2012 was 73 percent, slightly higher than the 71 percent who voted four years later.

    As with voters across the nation, Iowans generally take less interest in the midterm elections that happen between presidential election years.

    In 2014, for example, about 53 percent of registered voters participated in the midterm election that returned Gov. Terry Branstad and three House incumbents to office, elected Republican Joni Ernst to the U.S. Senate and flipped control of the Iowa Senate from Democratic to Republican.


    That 53 percent turnout was better than in 2006 when just 50 percent of voters showed up to vote.

    But this past November was an exception. Of the 2,167,914 Iowans registered to vote, the 2018 midterm elections saw 1,334,019 votes cast — a 61.53 percent turnout — according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

    Recent history tends to see a higher percentage of Republicans turning out in presidential years and midterms than Democrats or no-party voters. GOP turnout has been 80 percent, 82 percent and 81 percent in the past three presidential elections. That compares with 78, 77 and 74 percent turnout for Democrats in those years.

    “Both Republicans and Democrats have lower turnout in midterm years,” said Tim Hagle, University of Iowa political science professor. The drop-off often is “pretty equal” for Democrats and Republicans at about 30 percent compared to presidential election years, but was higher for Democrats in 2010 and 2014. Republican turnout fell off to 65, 69 and 68 percent in 2006, 2010 and 2014, respectively. For Democrats, turnout was 62, 57 and 57 percent in those years.

    The drop for no-party voters is steeper. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, their turnout was 61, 62 and 60 percent, according to the Secretary of State.


    In 2006, 2010 and 2014, no-party voter turnout was 36, 36 and 38 percent.

    “While the turnout electorate during midterms has tended to favor the GOP in recent cycles, the enthusiasm leading into the midterms this year has been overwhelmingly on the side of the Democrats,” said Ryan Dawkins, who teaches political science at Grinnell College.

    Although there is a steep drop-off among no-party voters in midterms, the UI’s Hagle said their votes cannot be discounted. Libertarian and no-party voters make up about 36 percent of registered voters.

    “As usual, it will still be the no-party voters who will determine the statewide elections in Iowa,” Hagle said.

    Matthew Patane contributed to this article.

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