5 things to watch as the election results roll in

Karen Humbert of Cedar Rapids removes a ballot from an envelope Saturday at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Ceda
Karen Humbert of Cedar Rapids removes a ballot from an envelope Saturday at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids. County auditors were allowed to begin opening absentee ballots on Saturday, though they cannot be tallied until Monday, one day before the election. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

This campaign cycle started roughly 3 million years and 30 billion political ads ago, or at least it feels like it. But we made it. Election Day 2020 is finally upon us.

As we all prepare to batten down the hatches Tuesday night and watch the results roll in, here are five unanswered questions, the answers to which will lie in those results.

1. Just how high will turnout go?

Are we headed for record turnout during a global pandemic? Early voting numbers have been off the charts. As of Thursday, more than 851,000 absentee ballots had already been returned in Iowa. That’s already well more than the 653,000 early ballots cast four years ago, according to state figures.

And those might not all be normal Election Day voters casting early ballots instead. Secretary of State Paul Pate said he still expects a busy day at the polls on Election Day. Numbers among young voters appear to be increasing over previous elections.

Iowa’s voter turnout in 2016 was 73 percent. We will soon find out if 2020 passes that figure, and just how high it will go.

2. How long will the counting take?

This may be less of a problem in Iowa than other states. Pate said this past week he is confident in county auditors’ ability to count the ballots quickly, even with that surge of early votes cast this year.

The closer a race is, the longer we have to wait for results, because in a close race any precincts left unreported could swing the results. And we have a pair of close races at the top of the ticket in Iowa, in the presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Nationally, some experts are warning it could be days or longer before we will know with certainty the outcome of the presidential election.

But in Iowa it seems more likely we will know the results in a more timely fashion.

3. Which way do the Obama-Trump counties go?

Remember before the pandemic when this was a common political discussion? Ah, simpler times.

One of the biggest questions coming into this election cycle was: How would voters who had supported Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 and then Republican Donald Trump in 2016 vote in 2020? Iowa was ground zero for the so-called Obama-Trump counties: There were 31 of them, the most in the country. Many of them were along the state’s northern and eastern borders.

That discussion seems to have disappeared faster than Iowa’s autumn. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see which way those counties vote in this presidential race. Are they sticking with Trump? Or will they swing back to the Democrats?

4. Did J.D. Scholten max out the Democrats’ 4th District hopes in 2018?

Two years ago, Democratic congressional candidate J.D. Scholten nearly pulled off the impossible: defeating a Republican incumbent in deeply conservative western Iowa’s 4th District. Scholten came within 3 percentage points of Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King, scaring Iowa Republicans into mounting a serious primary challenge. And sure enough, earlier this year, state Sen. Randy Feenstra knocked off King in the Republican primary.

King, who often made headlines for the wrong reasons, lost Republican votes in 2018, opening the door to Scholten’s near upset. Scholten is running again this year, but he was denied a rematch against King with Feenstra’s primary victory. Feenstra appears poised to regain some of that support that King lost two years ago.

Tuesday’s results will show whether a Democrat still has a chance to win in Iowa’s 4th District, or if Scholten’s close call in 2018 may be the closest they can come.

5. Will Iowa, for the first time in 36 years, toss out an incumbent U.S. senator?

This is the biggest question in Iowa. Whether Republican first-term incumbent Joni Ernst can stave off a serious challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield will decide so much.

As we all know well, in no small part thanks to the endless stream of campaign ads from the national political parties and a raft of other political groups, the Ernst-Greenfield race will be central to whether Republicans or Democrats emerge from the election with an agenda-setting majority in the U.S. Senate.

In Iowa, the race will determine whether the state retains two Republican U.S. senators, or goes back to the split Senate representation it featured for 30 years of Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley.

The Ernst-Greenfield results also will show whether Iowans have rediscovered a willingness to vote out an incumbent U.S. senator. That has not happened since 1984, Harkin’s first election, when he beat Republican Roger Jepsen.

Jepsen also was a first-term incumbent.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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