Iowa Democrats face troubled waters getting to 'blue wave'

They'll need to win over voters not aligned with either party

Ryan Dawkins, Grinnell College
Ryan Dawkins, Grinnell College

Despite clues that Democrats are poised to make big gains that may give them at least split control of Congress and increase their numbers at the Statehouse, not everyone is bracing for a “blue wave” this fall.

Democratic overperformance in special elections, the numbers and enthusiasm seen in the Women’s March and the growth of “resistance” organizations such as Indivisible have many Democrats believing it’s their turn after Republican wave elections in 2010 and 2014.

Iowa Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, who upset 30-year Republican Rep. Jim Leach in a 2006 Democratic wave, thinks 2018 will see similar results.

“I think there’s a lot going on out there in reaction to what the president has done on any number of issues,” the former political science professor predicted.

Democratic overperformance in special elections since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 has been “insane” and also larger than GOP overperformance in 2010 when tea party fervor helped fuel a Republican wave, according to Ryan Dawkins, associate professor of political science at Grinnell College.

But when he looks at a voter registration map of Iowa, he sees “a sea of red with a few blue drops.”

Democrats have a voter registration majority in eight of 99 Iowa counties, compared with 41 counties with Republican majorities. “Other” — Libertarians and no party voters — are the majority in 50 counties.


Like Dawkins, University of Northern Iowa political science professor Chris Larimer doesn’t see the same kind of trends developing this year that led to the GOP waves in 2010 and 2014.

“In those years, Democratic registration dropped nearly 3 percentage points,” Larimer said. Both Democratic and GOP voters registration numbers have fallen in the past two years, which is not uncommon between a presidential election cycle and midterm elections. GOP registrations are down 1.5 percent, “suggesting the wave has yet to materialize.” Democratic registration is off by a half percent.

However, Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Tess Seger points out Democrats made “huge” gains ahead of the June primary that featured competitive races for the party’s nomination for governor, and three congressional seats. Between May and Aug. 1, Democratic registration increased almost 4 percent or 26,298, according to the Iowa Secretary of State. In the same time, GOP registration increased slightly more than a half percent. Nonetheless, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 12,507 in the state.

“Historically, voter registration totals have not always predicted which party will win in the fall, especially since more folks are registering as ‘no party,’” Seger said.

Bruce Nesmith, who teaches political science at Coe College, also is skeptical of a blue wave in Iowa because “we are a very old and white state” — demographics that trend Republican.

Even if “Latino/a, black, young, LGBTQ voters, and a chunk of independents, and blue collar labor voters don’t surge for the Dems it will be a close election, but not a tsunami,” Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist and longtime Iowa political observer, wrote in an email.

The University of Iowa’s Tim Hagle agrees that “although plenty of people have been talking about (or hoping for) a blue wave, so far it just hasn’t seemed to me that it’s going to happen.”

Democrats — at least some of them — are energized, but Hagle questions whether the “resist” approach will work, especially at the state and local level.


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“We need to remember that political energy and enthusiasm is a scarce commodity,” Schmidt said. He said he doesn’t see “national charismatic leaders who can help focus the party apparatuses and candidates in ways that can appeal to the usual base.”

The key to Democratic victories — wave or no wave — is in the 37 percent of Iowa voters not registered as either Democratic or Republican. But less than a third of them voted in the 2010 and 2014 midterms.

Unless Democrats can flip the turnout differential dramatically to pick up Democratic-leaning no party voters, there won’t be a “blue wave,” Larimer said.

“In short, a ‘blue wave’ will require an immensely effective mobilization strategy by the Democrats,” he said.

“Voter registration is one factor, but at the end of the day it’s all about turnout,” said Republican Party of Iowa spokesman Jess Dougherty.

He doubts Democrats can maintain the “resistance fervor” necessary to mobilize its based and flip no-party voters. He bases that on the belief that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell will be unable to fire up the Democratic base “given his lack of positions on the issues, including Medicare-for-all, tuition-free public college, abolishing ICE, and even how he’ll work with or against Trump.”

However, the Democrats’ Seger said the party is “happy to be taking our case to all voters, regardless of affiliation, because Iowans are seeing firsthand every day how Gov. (Kim) Reynolds and the Iowa GOP are leaving folks behind.”

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