Iowa's urban-rural divide continues to widen

State's urban centers only not enough for Democrats

Republican Senate candidate Sen. Joni Ernst, right, gets a hug from a supporter at an election night victory rally, Tues
Republican Senate candidate Sen. Joni Ernst, right, gets a hug from a supporter at an election night victory rally, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — The alignment of Democratic voters to Iowa’s urban centers and Republican voters to the state’s rural areas continued to sharpen in the 2020 election.

And yet again, Republicans’ advantages across the state overwhelmed Democrats’ confined areas of strength.

Iowa’s urban-rural divide has been in the works for a decade now, and it’s no longer a growing trend: It’s the new normal. Democrats own the five counties with the largest populations; Republicans own all but one of the rest.

The problem for Democrats is that six counties — Polk, Linn, Scott, Johnson and Black Hawk, along with Story, home to Iowa State University — do not provide enough votes to win a statewide race and, in recent elections, Democrats generally have not been successful in most of the state’s other 93 counties.

Democrats haven’t won governor, U.S. Senate race in Iowa since 2008

Not only are Democrats losing most if not all of those other 93 counties, they’re having a hard time preventing Republicans from running up the score all over the state. The result: Iowa Democrats have not won a statewide, top-of-the-ticket race — for governor or the U.S. Senate — since 2008, now-retired U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s last election victory. Republicans have won seven such races in a row.

To be sure, Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a pair of entrenched Democratic incumbents, have won their statewide reelection bids during that time. And Democrat Rob Sand won 25 counties, most in Eastern Iowa, when he ousted a Republican incumbent in 2018. But none of those are top-of-the-ticket races.

“It does seem to be cementing itself. It really did seem to start in 2010, and going forward the divide has started to sharpen,” said Christopher Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Vilsack and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama enjoyed statewide success in the 1990s and 2000s, Larimer said. “And then (statewide support for Democrats in Iowa) just seems to have cratered since then.”


Vilsack won 49 and 68 counties in his two victories in Iowa gubernatorial races, in 1998 and 2002, and his successor, Chet Culver, won 62 counties. Obama won 53 and 38 counties here in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

By contrast, in this week’s elections, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden won only those big six counties in Iowa — the same six that fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton won four years ago. Republican Donald Trump carried the state both years.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield did not fare much better this year: She won only eight counties in her loss to Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, adding only Cerro Gordo and Jefferson counties.

The divide

Counties won in Iowa’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections since 2010:

• 2010: Terry Branstad (R) 90, Chet Culver (D) 9

• 2010: Chuck Grassley (R) 98, Roxanne Conlin (D) 1

• 2014: Terry Branstad (R) 98, Jack Hatch (D) 1

• 2014: Joni Ernst (R) 85, Bruce Braley (D) 14

• 2016: Chuck Grassley (R) 98, Patty Judge (D) 1

• 2018: Kim Reynolds (R) 88, Fred Hubbell (D) 11

• 2020: Joni Ernst (R) 91, Theresa Greenfield (D) 8

“After 2016, there were real questions about whether rural Iowa had been lost to Democrats for good, and whether Iowa was going to be put into this category of safe Republican seats,” said Andrew Green, a political-science professor at Central College. In 2018, Democrats flipped two congressional seats and while gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell lost, he did win 11 counties.

“I think there was a sense that with the right messaging, that Democrats could win in rural Iowa,” Green said. “I think there was some hope that with Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, potentially appealing as more of a centrist or center-left nominee, that he might be able to win back some votes, particularly along the river on the eastern side of the state. But it just didn’t play out that way.”

Larimer was similarly surprised that Democratic candidates Greenfield and northwest Iowa congressional candidate J.D. Scholten were not more successful in this week’s election because of their rural background. Greenfield grew up on a farm in Minnesota before her family eventually moved to Iowa, and Scholten nearly pulled off the impossible two years ago, coming within 3 percentage points of Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King.

Despite that remarkable performance in 2018, Scholten this year against Republican Randy Feenstra — who ousted King in the June party primary — won only one county: Story.

“Those were two candidates where, if you look at their backgrounds, they were more of the rural-type Democrats,” Larimer said. “They should have had more appeal to rural voters, especially in a cycle when the leader of the Republican Party was pretty controversial. And they weren’t able to expand the map.”


That a candidate like Biden was not able to expand Democrats’ map in Iowa could portend bad news for Iowa Democrats, Green said.

“I was of the mind that the right candidate and the right message was the ticket to win back some of those (rural) voters,” Green said. “And if Joe Biden isn’t that candidate, I’m not sure what other national-level Democrat would be able to come into the state and win back those voters. I fear (for Democrats) they’re lost, if not for a generation but maybe longer than that.”

Urban-rural divide is growing across the country

Iowa is not the only place this is happening. The urban-rural divide is growing across the country. Generally, Democratic votes are concentrated in states’ biggest cities, while Republican voters are spread throughout the states’ more sparsely populated areas.

Unlike in some other states, Republicans in Iowa currently have the upper hand in part because there are not enough people — or votes — in the state’s biggest cities to offset the people — and votes — in the rural areas.

“It certainly isn’t something that’s unique (to Iowa). I think the biggest difference, in Iowa vs. Wisconsin, for example, is the Democratic Party just has so many more votes in Milwaukee and Madison than we do in our urban areas. I think as a result, we’re going to be a different type of state moving forward,” Green said. “We just don’t have these huge metropolitan areas that are going to be able to deliver the magnitude that (Democrats need) Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or the Cedar Valley to deliver.”

There will be two more statewide, top-of-the-ticket races in Iowa in two years: a gubernatorial election and another U.S. Senate race. The latter could be an open-seat race if 87-year-old Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley decides to retire.

The question is whether Iowa’s urban-rural divide is not just cementing, but cemented. Are only six counties — perhaps a few more at most — in play for statewide Iowa Democratic candidates? The next answer to that comes in 2022.

Larimer said the growing urban-rural divide in Iowa will make it more difficult for the Democratic candidate in either of those races.

“I think it’s at least, in the immediate future, for 2022 it’s an uphill climb,” Larimer said. “So far, just coming from a rural background doesn’t seem to do it. I’m not sure what the answer is.”

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