Record voter turnout masks Iowa schism

Experts: What drove voters - altruism or anger?

A man marks his ballot Oct. 29 while standing among other voters separated by makeshift barriers at an early voting area
A man marks his ballot Oct. 29 while standing among other voters separated by makeshift barriers at an early voting area in the Lindale Mall food court in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

It’s a positive sign for democracy that nearly 1.7 million Iowans participated in the 2020 general election, but Paul Lasley worries the results highlight a growing dichotomy between rural and urban Iowa.

“So while we can celebrate record turnout, I am quite troubled that the motivations were not about what’s good for America or how we build a more perfect union,” said Lasley, who has been teaching sociology at Iowa State University for 40 years.

The 2020 election put an exclamation point on Iowa’s rural-urban divide. U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and President Donald Trump carried 91 and 93 largely rural counties, respectively, while their Democratic opponents Theresa Greenfield and Joe Biden carried the urban communities.

Republicans also maintained their 32-18 Iowa Senate majority and House Republicans increased their margin to 59-41. Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, points out they now represent all or parts of 97 of 99 counties.

Iowa’s rural voters were not unique. In both 2016 and 2020, voters in the lion’s share of the nation’s rural counties backed Trump. Only 16 rural counties flipped from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. Biden appears to be on track to win roughly the same share of rural counties as Hillary Clinton — about 10 percent, well below the 17 percent of rural counties President Barack Obama carried in 2012.

According to analysis by the Washington-based Economic Innovation Group, which advocates for policies to lessen geographic inequalities, Biden won rural counties with larger populations of minorities and people who migrated from other states. Rural Midwest counties Biden won had population growth that averaged 1.8 percent over the past 10 years while counties Trump won saw an average population decline of 2.5 percent.

Over the past 50 to 100 years, the Midwest has seen out-migration, economic stagnation, young people leaving and towns withering, Lasley said.


“I think much of the rural-urban divide is the unequal or at least perceptions of equal access and opportunities,” he said. Lasley speculates that “many rural voters are angry because they feel that they have been left behind.”

He blames both parties for the perception that other than the metro areas — Minneapolis, Des Moines. Kansas City and Omaha — the rest of the Midwest doesn’t count.

“So rural voters see a robust stock market and growth industries,” said Lasley, who graduated in a class of 24 from a rural north Missouri high school. “Their children and grandchildren have migrated out of the Midwest and have gone South and West to urban places and are enjoying lifestyles not possible in their local community.”

The split between rural and urban voters in Iowa may be a “pent-up signal of distress.”

Iowa and the Midwest have experienced a series of “shocks” starting with the farm debt crisis of the 1980s, natural disasters and now a pandemic “in which people are frustrated, if not angry,” Lasley said.

Passage of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement “really accelerated” change in many rural communities, added Colin Lewis-Beck, a visiting statistics professor and part of the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center’s Iowa Small Towns Project.

“We have seen a hollowing out of small towns as industry has closed,” he said, citing Maytag in Newton and Sheaffer Pen Corp. in Fort Madison as examples of employers who abandoned facilities in Iowa. In addition, agriculture has become more concentrated.

“This has resulted in fewer job opportunities for people living in rural areas,” he said.


At the same time, Lewis-Beck points out that although Iowa’s population has remained stable, “cities like Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Ames have exploded in size as people migrate from rural to urban communities.”

That has led to a disconnect in Iowa politics and governing with rural issues no longer resonating with urban voters and vice versa. “When voters go to the polls, I think they’re really trying to find candidates that reflect their values,” Lasley said.

Contributing to that disconnect, said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., is that rural values and voting patterns are shaped by an “entrepreneurial mind-set that permeates throughout rural communities.”

“At their core, farms are small businesses and if you live in town, most of the businesses on Main Street are going to be small businesses,” says Hladik, who grew up on a family farm in Nebraska. “If you don’t own one of those, if you’re not an entrepreneur, there’s a pretty good chance you’re working there.”

So it may be natural for those voters to value their independence.

“You want to run your business in the way that you think will be most successful without outside intervention,” Hladik said. “For better or worse, fair or not, the Republican Party is seen as the small government party ... and that is going to give Republicans a leg up time and time again.”

That changes when the children of rural Iowa move to the big city, Hladik said. They are introduced to new ideas, cultures, experiences, opportunities, even new foods. As they move into the workforce they are more likely to be part of a large corporation than a small business with an entrepreneurial feel.

Living in Cedar Rapids or Des Moines or Davenport, they get a different perspective of an “almost omnipresent” government, Hladik added.

“You’re seeing the government more often and you’re seeing them do different things,” he said. “You can’t live in an urban area and feel like you can do all of this without some sort of government intervention. I think that really makes a big difference.”


It’s not that government isn’t present in rural communities, Hladik said. Many small business and farmers benefit from government programs. U.S. Department of Agriculture food stamp payments help support grocery stores. Hospitals and schools get federal support.

Farmers, who Lewis-Beck notes have historically voted for Republicans, also benefit from federal programs and payments. A generous Farm Bill that channeled money into rural areas and the Trump administration’s trade relief payments to farmers have helped maintain rural Republican support.

However, those transfers aren’t out in the open, Hladik said.

“So you can quietly imagine yourself to be an avatar of independence while receiving that direct payment for your farm and not think twice about it,” he said. “No farmers think that those direct payments are handouts. Most of them are saying, ‘Hey, I’m working extremely hard, the markets are just not there for me right now, by no fault of my own.’ So this direct payment is completely justified.”

For all of their differences, the challenges faced by Iowans in cities and small towns may not be so different, said Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, whose rural North Central Iowa district covers two counties that do not include Republican representation in the chamber. Communities in House 52 need funding for health care and education, as well as jobs that pay a living wage and a farm safety net, he said.

Incoming Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, of Coralville, thinks many of Iowans’ concerns should bridge the rural-urban divide.

He is one of three Democratic senators whose districts include substantial rural territory. Senate 37 includes suburban Johnson County as well as rural Cedar and a bit of Muscatine counties.

“So it’s a very geographically diverse area and I see the same thing whether I’m in Coralville or I’m in Clarence, which is this growing gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Wahls said.

What’s been lost, according to Lasley and Hladik, is a statewide sense of common interest. There are several causes, but they both point to the rise of social media that has increasingly allowed communities of place and politics to replace communities of common interests.


“You know, you can just choose your source to define the result you want,” Hladik said. It challenges “even the assumption that there could be a common interest.”

Lasley, who specializes in rural sociology, finds that as he travels Iowa, it is “impossible not to be impressed by the buildings, the institutions, the organizations, that people — generally volunteers — built.”

“This was people working together across political divides and divisions, across socioeconomic status,” he said. “That was our community and neighbors helping each other.”

In light of the election results, Iowans need to return to what he calls “neighboring.”

“You know, even if we look different, act different, vote differently, we still need to remain civil,” he said. “One way to do that is to listen and get to know our neighbors to stay connected. It’s going to require that we listen rather than speak, that we reach out to those unlike ourselves.

“It’s not that you necessarily have to agree, but the recognition that we have to work together,” Lasley said. “And I think the challenge will be is, how do we get people to set aside differences for the common good?”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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