'Leaners' hold key to Iowa's midterm elections

Many unaligned voters lean to a major party - but which one?

Iowa Democrats and Republicans will mount huge turnout efforts for this fall’s elections, but it’s likely the outcomes won’t be decided by voters in either party.

That’s because in Iowa, candidates already have been effective in turning out their bases. The challenge is turning out voters not aligned to either major party.

August voter registration numbers show the GOP has a slight advantage — 680,979 to 668,472 Democrats in the state. However, the biggest bloc of voters is the 789,204 who represent no party, the Libertarian Party and others.

“As usual, it will still be the no party/other voters who will determine the statewide elections in Iowa,” predicted University of Iowa political science Professor Tim Hagle.

“The ‘no party’ element is the big unknown,” added Chris Larimer, who teaches political science at the University of Northern Iowa. If Democrats’ hoped- for “blue wave” is to materialize, he said, they will be relying on the “leaners.”

Political scientists say it’s not accurate to call no-party voters independents, because most of them lean toward one party or another. But without knowing how many of them lean Democratic or Republican, Larimer said, it’s nearly impossible to predict how the will vote.

“Political independents tend to behave like stealth partisans,” pointed out Grinnell College political science Professor Ryan Dawkins. “The number of true independents is relatively small. The problem is it is hard to tell what way they tend to lean without looking at actual voting behavior.”


One thing known about actual voting behavior is that turnout drops off in midterm elections — more so among Democrats than Republicans in recent years. Turnout among voters not affiliated with either major party drops off even more.

According to the Iowa Secretary of State, overall turnout in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections ranged from 32 to 39 percent higher than in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 midterms.

The drop-off among Republicans from presidential elections to midterms ranged from roughly 13 to 15 percentage points. For Democrats, the drop-offs ranged from 16 to 20 percentage points.

Voting data also shows GOP voter turnout is a higher percentage than Democratic turnout.

Hagel notes the number of no-party/other voters has increased this summer, adding about 5,000 from July to August while the Democratic and Republican parties each added a few hundred voters.

“Again,” Hagle said, “the big questions are whether these no-party/other voters will turn out and, of course, who they will vote for it they do.”

Adding to political handicappers’ challenge in predicting the outcome of the Nov. 6 election is that although the midterm electorate has tended to favor Republicans, Dawkins said “the enthusiasm leading into the midterms this year has been overwhelmingly on the side of the Democrats.”

Democrats in Iowa and nationwide have shown great energy and enthusiasm ever since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. They have turned out in greater numbers in special elections and won in some places where they typically don’t.

In August polls, Democrats were leading by 4 to 11 points nationally on a generic ballot — that is, the question of “If the election was held today, would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican candidate?”


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However, Dawkins said Republicans have institutional advantages that may offset that. For one thing, Republicans are more evenly distributed across the nation, Dawkins said. Democrats tend to be concentrated on the coasts and in urban areas.

That clustering is true in Iowa, too. Democrats enjoy success in the urban counties — Polk, Linn, Johnson, Dubuque and Black Hawk, for example. Republicans have had a virtual lock on rural legislative districts.

There are no counties in the U.S. House 4th District where Republican Rep. Steve King that have Democratic voter registration majorities. In the 2nd District, where Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack is up for re-election, six of the 24 counties have Democratic majorities.

Interestingly, there is only one Democratic majority county in each of the 1st and 3rd U.S. House districts, which are considered by election observers to be ripe for flipping from Republican to Democratic.

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