Higher education

Familiar faces in frequent places: UI students study patterns in presidential visits, ads

'This shows a strategy toward repeat voting'

A University of Iowa student points a chart comparing political ad types in a University of Iowa political science class
A University of Iowa student points a chart comparing political ad types in a University of Iowa political science class analyzing the run up to the caucus in Schaeffer Hall in Iowa City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Iowans know presidential candidates spend a lot of time in the Hawkeye State — many residents, in fact, have gotten to meet and hake hands with this cycle’s hopefuls.

But some of the thousands who’ve attended the spate of recent campaign events have had to drive farther than others — and a group of University of Iowa recently asked why.

Through a three-week winter course aimed at “observing the Iowa caucuses and their role in presidential nomination,” the students found population and past political performance matter most in determining where candidates hold events.

The group compared GOP candidate stops with the percentage of voters in each county who backed Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

“There are more visits now by Republicans to those formerly Romney counties, just because a lot of people know they will vote again for the Republican Party,” said UI senior Jean Minjares, 23. “I think this shows a strategy toward repeat voting.”

More than 74 percent of visits by Republican front-runners this campaign cycle were in the top Republican-leaning counties, according to the student analysis.

Students found the percent of Republican candidate visits dropped in counties that saw less Republican support in 2012 — that is, until they analyzed the Iowa counties with the lowest percent of Republican support.

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For that group, the percent of Republican candidate visits this cycle bumped back up to 52 percent, showing — perhaps — that population overrides party leaning.

Polk, Linn, Black Hawk, Story and Scott counties ranked at the top in total and Republican candidate visits, according to the assessment, which analyzed the nine candidates with the most traction in national polls.

Those most-visited counties are among Iowa’s most populated. They also all went for Obama in 2012.

Of the about 500 candidate events tallied by the students, 115 were in Polk County — Iowa’s most populated county, which includes Des Moines.

Democratic candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley held the most events across the state and in Polk County, according to the student data.

Many of the more rural Iowa counties hosted just one event, including Adair, Fremont and Ringgold counties — some of the smallest in Iowa. Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz was the one candidate who visited those three communities, according to the student data.

Republican Donald Trump held the fewest events in Iowa, the student research showed, with 25 to O’Malley’s 95.

“The conclusion is that Trump is just known throughout Iowa, and O’Malley is trying to get a name for himself,” said UI senior Tiffany Adams, 21.

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Other students, as part of the UI caucus class, analyzed television advertising and local and national polling to gauge the state’s relevance and how it is viewed strategically by those vying for the nomination.

Students who analyzed ads tracked when they ran, where they ran, who funded them and whether they were positive or negative. They found most ads ran in the evening and an overwhelming majority were positive.

UI political science professor Cary Covington, who teaches the class, said that finding is not surprising. Candidates early in their campaigns want to establish a reputation for what they have done and can do, he said. Later, they can use that as a base for mounting an attack.

“But they are not wanting to muddy their image in the early stages,” Covington said.

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