Department of strange conclusions

Kathie Obradovich’s latest column for the Des Moines Register summarized conclusions from a research project by Chris Larimer, associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. According to Obradovich, after studying Iowa governors’ job approval ratings and interviewing 23 “politicos” from around the state, Larimer concluded that Iowa governors (other than Chet Culver) have been regularly re-elected because most of them met public expectations for a lot of personal contact with the governor. Governor Terry Branstad has visited every county every year. Governor Tom Vilsack did annual walks across Iowa.

I haven’t read Larimer’s draft, but I think he’s missing a few points. While it’s clearly a political asset for governors to be visible around the state, I doubt that is the biggest factor in Iowans’ tendency to re-elect our incumbents.

The first point that leaps out from Larimer’s research, as summarized by Obradovich, is that Bob Ray “was by far the most popular Iowa governor.” Ray led the state from 1969 until Branstad’s first inauguration in 1983. He traveled around Iowa, but he wasn’t committed to doing public events in all 99 counties every year the way U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and Branstad have done since the 1980s. I would submit that Ray’s enduring popularity comes from the way he governed: as a moderate focused on results rather than party ideology. He didn’t score cheap points against the opposition. My mother voted for very few Republican politicians during her lifetime, but she repeatedly voted to re-elect Ray, and so did many other Iowa Democrats.

The longest-serving governor in Iowa history, Branstad was elected to four consecutive terms during the 1980s and 1990s.  But let’s not forget that his popularity dipped so low during the early 1990s that he very nearly became the only sitting Iowa governor to lose his party’s primary. In the 1994 GOP primary, Branstad beat U.S. Representative Fred Grandy by only a 52-48 margin. Grandy had lived most of his adult life outside the state of Iowa before returning in the mid-1980s to represent a Congressional district in the northwest part of the state. Perhaps Larimer is correct that Branstad’s habit of doing so many public events around the state helped him weather that storm. Grandy only carried a handfulof counties outside his Congressional district. But one of them was Polk County, the most populous in the state and a place where voters were very familiar with Branstad.

Larimer’s research indicates that Culver had the lowest approval ratings of the governors studied. There’s no question that he, First Lady Mari Culver, and Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge traveled less than their predecessors in Tom Vilsack’s administration did, and were perceived to be less accessible to Iowans. But a lot of Democrats with better political skills than Culver (such as Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin) were swept away in the 2010 GOP landslide. Culver happened to preside over the worst recession in 60 years. That seems to be a far more important factor in his failure to win re-election.

Now let’s consider Grassley, the godfather of the idea that Iowa’s elected officials should visit all 99 counties every year. All those town-hall meetings contribute to his appeal, clearly. Still, I suspect that Grassley’s reputation for strong constituent service is more important. In any event, Senator Tom Harkin managed to win five statewide elections without doing a “full Grassley” every year. Harkin’s popularity has never been quite at Grassley’s level, but he was entrenched enough not to draw any serious challengers in 2008, and he would have easily been re-elected to a sixth term if he had not chosen to retire this year.

Larimer’s theory doesn’t explain why Iowans have re-elected other incumbents who travel far less around the state. Mike Fitzgerald is the longest-serving state treasurer in the country. Tom Miller won his eighth term as attorney general by a double-digit margin amid the 2010 Republican landslide. Incidentally, I still believe that if Iowa Democrats had nominated Miller in 1990, Branstad could have been beaten that year, but we’ll never know.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

  • Governors

    Governors should travel as much as they can around a state.  People like to see Governors surveying a factory, at least pretending like they want to know something about a job.  

    No one knows who Mike Fitzgerald is and most people don’t even realize we elect a State Treasurer.  Tom Miller doesn’t offend anyone that isn’t a diehard.  

    Chet Culver could have been re-elected, but the Repubs knew they had to bring in their prized recruit to do it.  We both agree that it would have been tough and that primary would have been different without Branstad.  

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