The 2016 Election: A view from The People’s Republic of Johnson County

A resident offers a view of the 2016 election from the “People’s Republic of Johnson County.” -promoted by desmoinesdem

If Johnson County, Iowa were its own state or country, Hillary Clinton would be president today and Patty Judge one of our two senators, Bruce Braley being the other. Using public data from the Johnson County Auditor webpage, turnout for the 2016 presidential election was 77,476 votes, which is 84 percent of registered voters. Secretary Clinton pulled in 65 percent of the vote and Judge 57 percent in her bid to become US Senator. In the presidential race, Donald Trump received 27 percent of the vote, Gary Johnson 4 percent, and write-ins were higher than any other candidate at 1.2 percent.

John Deeth notes in his blog that Johnson County, Iowa tops the next best performing county for Clinton by 14 percent, and in the recent past was the only wins for Jack Hatch and Roxanne Conlin. Johnson was the only county to not favor Terry Branstad in his 2014 reelection. If more of the nation had voted like Johnson County, things would have looked more like what nearly every news source was predicting. The figure of 84 percent is remarkable for a turnout and press coverage reflected this, but I will return to this in a moment.

The 2016 presidential results in Johnson county is a long term trend going back to John F. Kennedy Lyndon Johnson and unlikely to abate, despite the strong GOP minority and vocal Libertarian, Green, and Socialist circles in the community. Our educated and comparatively well-off voting population fosters a measured, but not extreme liberalism overall, among those who vote in presidential elections.

Deeth also points out correctly that the liberalism of Johnson County is not due solely or directly to the University of Iowa student body. Though many people who are liberal work for the UI, the most progressive precincts in the county are in the first ring, turn of the 20th century, suburbs of Iowa City—areas considered near, but not in, the downtown where most of the students live and vote. Longfellow (Iowa City Precinct 18) voted for Clinton at 82 percent and the total for Ms. Clinton was 80 percent at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Though many millennials are liberal, many seemingly are not as the vote from their precincts roughly mirrored suburbs and smaller towns, like Coralville with just 59 percent for Clinton. Along those lines, Libertarian Gary Johnson did as well with five to six percent in Iowa City 19, Recreation Center, which is surrounded by student housing and UI Library, where only students vote, as he did in most of North LIberty, and a couple of rural polling locations, namely Hills and Tiffin.

One thing that stood out to me, however, was the vocal, but apparently minor number of Sanders or bust people who did not vote, or were part of the 1 percent or so of write-ins. Despite assertions by a few to the contrary, I doubt many if any Sanders supporters voted for Trump. That group of would-be defectors seemed to exist online and was seemingly widespread there, but that did not become a voting issue here. That Democrats did not see a large defection is important, as Sanders won the caucus here by about 60 percent and local conventional wisdom among at least some Clinton supporters held that Sanders supporters were men, men who hated women, men who would vote for Trump over Clinton and this was not the case.

Democrats should take heed of this damaging type of talk online just as Democrats would in person. Some local people have commented to me that it was hard to follow any of the elections, since everyone seemed to be shouting at everyone else. It was not just the candidates, but their supporters. People of all parties, including Democrats, all seem to have borrowed Trump’s “speaking our minds” attitude while ignoring decorum and being polite. The idea being that everyone had to be heard and heard now led to this, I think. But too, there was name calling during the primary. Insinuations and insults happened again and again. Compared to past successful presidential campaigns, this one really stood out for the level of rhetoric trumping manners on the part of the major candidates, not just on their behalf. The norm of the VP candidate being the hatchet was lost as everyone, including the candidates were the hatchet.

We need to step back from this. It’s too tempting to resort to raising our voice when we feel we are not heard, but it turned people off here, including some in the large Millennials population, and voting was up in the air for many I suspect. Despite a record turnout, Democrats can’t forget that they don’t have a forever lock on the vote and if many more people become disinterested, or choose alternative parties, Johnson County could become competitive. Unthinkable, seemingly unlikely, but look at who the president-elect is. Things do change and not always predictably.

It seems an absolute certainty that Democrats need to bring back manners and decorum to encourage discussions and find ways to help others to vote Democrat, even if they have to, as the common phrase this past election went, “hold their noses” for their less than favorite candidate. Yes Democrats have differences in the Big Tent party, but they are not so big that Democrats can’t talk about them. Instead, we chose to shout over each other.

Returning to our very nice turnout in Johnson County, the parties in general are still not tapping into the resource of non-voters who would otherwise be eligible to vote. Johnson County may have as much as 25 percent more potential eligible voters than we have registered and that ignores still more people disenfranchised by voting restrictions. But these are things we tend to ignore in our analyses. Even as folks shout to get their point across, the numbers of people who just won’t vote is likely also increasing. It is possible that only the fear of Trump got people to vote that otherwise were so turned off on the angry rhetoric that they might just have stayed home.

Be that as it may, social media is a growing presence that is influencing public opinion and should not be underestimated in the future. Kurt Friese, a local foods chef and newly elected County Supervisor notes that he feels social media did help him win in the primary back in June even when the whispers around town were that a fellow, if somewhat newly, Democratic opponent would win. Similarly Barack Obama had a noticeable online organization when he won both times and Sanders did better than expected possibly due to organizing and campaigning online where many people live these days, especially would be Democrats and other progressives. Note that this is not just tweeting randomly but engaging people otherwise out of contact.

But Democrats can’t forget that Donald Trump seems to have used twitter to his advantage both during the GOP primary and during the general election, as well as taking advantage of fake news and biased reporting from right wing sources both online and on television. His loudest supporters liked the outsider style, the frank if rude rhetoric, and were willing to accept what they wanted to hear rather than what they might otherwise know to be true. Locally, though, vocal conservative supporters, like most Republican talk, was limited to the opinion pages of the local papers, though those same papers gave a lot of space to Trump news, amounting to daily free advertising. Even as fears of Trump grew, many people here were sure there would be a win for Clinton and cited analysis to prove it, even though some, not all, of the predictions for the elections had minor footnotes that they and everyone else seemed to ignore when making statements. Overall, people were hoping Clinton would carry the nation and not just the county, being aware Democrats are more or less a certainty here, and concerns were for the national trends more than local returns.

The possibility of weakening effectiveness of ground work for get out the vote efforts and a growing presence of social media to communicate are important implications as Democrats try to move forward with future campaigns. Democrats who have continued to rely on a ground game and door to door canvassing for get out the vote efforts as fewer and fewer people answer their doors and phones will most likely be at a distinct disadvantage going forward. Anecdotally, I have campaigned for candidates, formally or informally, in races for City Council, County Supervisor, Governor, Congress, and President to greater or lesser degrees and in not just Johnson, but also Polk and Linn counties.

On those campaigns where I knocked doors or made phone calls, I rarely found anyone wanting to listen, and this goes back to the early 2000s. I heard the same thing from a lot of volunteers on the GOTV day for John Kerry here in Iowa City. People no longer trust strangers at the door, they have their minds made up, or simply are no longer participating in our democracy in this way, if at all. Our last city council election in Iowa City had a tiny turnout at just 12 percent. Traditionally Democrats view this as a lack of door knocking. But I think there are other causes. I think people in general are broadly disengaged and those who are participating in elections are being reached by other means. And yes, it is more difficult to collect numbers from social media than in person, but as stated, I suspect door knocking isn’t helping much.

Though mostly campaigning in Muscatine County for candidates there, Rod Sullivan, a long term Johnson County supervisor noted that people were seemingly uninterested in elections and that many people hated both candidates. I heard this from people in Iowa City, too. Talking with people online or in person, there is a very high standard people seem to have set for candidates and if they don’t match every single thing that Democrats think, Democrats don’t want to vote for them, though supporters for other parties do seem to vote for their candidates. Some of this may be too soon to review. History typically takes a generation to be considered viable, but waiting 20 years is not an option for Democrats to regroup. As Dennis Roseman, a longtime Johnson County Democratic Party fixture says, you can’t align with every view of any candidate because they are not you.

So, what went right for Democrats in Johnson County? It is impossible to ignore a growing, educated and comparatively well-off population among those who vote supporting a long term trend that continues since the Kennedy election. This was probably bolstered by a strong primary contender that (re)activated the progressives, many who are weary of forever campaigns, a few who recently helped place a seemingly progressive majority on the nonpartisan Iowa City Council and chose more progressive candidates over more centrist candidates for County Supervisor in the primary.

Fortunately, a number of those strongly favoring Bernie Sanders in Johnson County did what he asked and voted for Clinton, and that is part of why the vote went so well for Democrats here. That Democrats did not see a large defection is important, as Sanders won the caucus here by about 60 percent and Clinton in the presidential election by 5 percent more. Sanders Democrats for the most part remained loyal in Johnson County and did turn out to vote, despite distrust or general dislike of Clinton and the nomination process. And this probably would have happened regardless of the opposition. Trump made this an especially easy choice in retrospect, though expression of discontent and ambivalence continued up until the leaked Trump tapes event occurred. Would Clinton folks also have voted for Sanders? I think so. So that willingness to disagree, but come back together is a big deal, and it is reflected in most of our elected officials and the JC Dems tend to host events supporting this, such as the unity parties after primaries and caucuses.

But all this good will may be masking a greater problem and that is the DNC as a whole is split between progressive and economically liberal political ideology and this is felt here in Johnson County as well. Local politics here is a trade between being progressive and being economically liberal. Democrats cannot continue to pick a candidate and then run through the motions of a caucus and election and expect good results to follow simply because people are loyal now. They probably will not be so loyal in the future, especially if this, as appearances suggest, charade of democratic rhetoric, but back-room decision making continues.

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