Forecasters still mixed on whether Iowa is toss-up state or leans Democratic

When Bleeding Heartland reviewed presidential election forecasts nearly two months ago, four projections had Iowa leaning Democratic, while five labeled our state a toss-up. Since then, Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence have each visited Iowa twice. Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine have each visited Iowa once. Clinton’s campaign and allied groups including the super-PACs Priorities USA and VoteVets have spent substantial sums on television commercials here. After the Republican and Democratic national conventions, Clinton improved her standing in many nationwide and swing state polls, but Iowa polls continue to show no clear advantage for either side.

The fourth Iowa poll released this month is another snapshot of a closely contested race. CBS/YouGov surveyed 987 “likely voters” via the internet between August 17 and 19 and found Clinton and Trump tied at 40 percent, with 7 percent of respondents supporting Libertarian Gary Johnson, 2 percent backing Jill Stein of the Green Party, 4 percent “someone else,” and 7 percent not sure. The cross-tabs show Clinton leading among women by 44 percent to 38 percent and Trump leading among men by 43 percent to 36 percent. Among the CBS/YouGov respondents who identify as Democrats, Clinton leads Trump by 80 percent to 9 percent (3 percent Johnson, 1 percent Stein). Trump leads Clinton among self-identified Republicans by 76 percent to 4 percent (8 percent Johnson, 0 percent Stein) and also leads independents by 39 percent to 31 percent (10 percent Johnson, 4 percent Stein).

With relatively few Iowa voters undecided and both candidates quite well-known, the election is shaping up as a test of identifying supporters and turning them out, rather than a persuasion game. Speaking with highly engaged Iowa Democratic activists lately, I’ve heard many acknowledge Trump could carry this state, although the general feeling seems to be “I’d rather be us than them.” Early voting begins less than 40 days from now on Thursday, September 29.

Time to check in again with leading election forecasters.

Forecasts seeing Iowa as leaning Democratic’s 2016 presidential election forecast changes frequently, sometimes more than once a day. Odds are calculated for three different scenarios: “polls-plus” (including some historical and economic data), “polls only” (including only available opinion polls), and “now-cast” (which candidate would win if the election were today). Nate Silver’s model currently gives Clinton an 55.0 percent chance of beating Trump in Iowa, according to the “polls-plus” analysis. Clinton’s odds improve to 67.4 percent in “polls only” but are only 57.9 percent in the now-cast. FiveThirtyEight sees Iowa as one of fourteen “states to watch,” but her odds of carrying our state are considerably lower than her odds of winning at least 270 electoral votes. In late June, the model saw Clinton better-positioned in Iowa.

The Larry Sabato “Crystal Ball” forecast was last updated on August 17 and still shows Iowa as a “lean Democratic” state, along with Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Nebraska’s second Congressional district. While FiveThirtyEight’s forecast can change significantly after a new poll is released, Sabato has altered his state-by-state projections much more sparingly this year. He explained why in this August 4 blog post:

On March 31, we released our first general election map of the Electoral College. With our self-imposed rule of permitting no cop-out “toss-ups” — a rule we’ll try to hold to as we handicap this year’s Electoral College map — our bottom-line totals were 347 electoral votes for Hillary Clinton and 191 for Donald Trump. […]

You might ask: What about the wild swings in polling we observe with regularity, most recently after each convention? Some persuasive research has argued that it is explained by variability in the survey response rates of Democrats and Republicans. (See Andrew Gelman, et al., “The Mythical Swing Voter”). That is, short-term swings in candidate preference are caused mainly if not exclusively by variability in partisan response rates. Even small changes in response rates among Democrats and Republicans can produce sizable shifts in candidate support, given the very low overall response rates in most polls.

In our view, it is much more fruitful to focus on the electoral fundamentals and fixed elements of politics that predetermine most votes, especially partisanship, demographics, and strong forces shaping the political landscape. Polarization in this hyper-partisan era means that practically nine of 10 voters are committed, and the unknown is whether they can be motivated to cast a ballot. Presidential job approval, the state of the economy, war and peace, and a few other items reinforce partisanship and turnout, and influence the few truly swingable votes among hard independents.

This is especially true when the choices are as well-known as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s not just their nearly universal name identification; most voters have strong opinions about both, and it is very difficult — even with a four-day infomercial like a national convention — to change basic attitudes about these candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

Iowa has voted for the Democratic candidate in six of the last seven presidential elections. The exception was President George W. Bush in 2004, and he beat John Kerry by less than 1 percent here.

The most recent Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report ratings, published on August 19, kept Iowa in the “lean DEM” category, along with Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia. Stuart Rothenberg and Nathan Gonzales see Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin in the more competitive “Toss-up/Tilt DEM” category, and only North Carolina a “pure toss-up” state.

The Election Projection website’s forecasts can swing with each new poll published. The Suffolk University poll showing Trump up by 1 point here convinced Scott Elliott to mark Iowa as a “Weak GOP gain” state, but Quinnipiac’s August 17 poll showing a small Clinton lead pushed Iowa back to “Weak DEM hold,” a rating unchanged by the CBS/YouGov survey. Other “Weak DEM” states in this forecast: Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.

Forecasts seeing Iowa as a toss-up

ABC News most recently updated its presidential state ratings on August 12, keeping Iowa in the toss-up category along with Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire.

As of August 15, the Cook Political Report electoral college scorecard still shows Iowa as a toss-up, along with Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and one electoral vote each in Nebraska and Maine.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza updated “The Fix” blog’s electoral college projection on August 15. Trump’s position eroded in some states, but Iowa remained a toss-up. Other states with the same rating: Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Georgia.

National Public Radio’s Domenico Montanaro updated NPR’s general election ratings on August 16. Iowa is one of six toss-up states, along with Ohio, Georgia, Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina, plus one Congressional district in Nebraska.

The NBC News Battleground Map released in mid-August has Iowa as a toss-up, along with Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and one electoral vote in Nebraska.

LATE UPDATE: As of September 1, the Reuters forecast based on Ipsos polling shows Iowa as the toss-up, along with Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine, Utah (?), and South Carolina (?).

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