How old is Iowa's electorate?

Probably older than you think.

The median age of Iowa residents is 38 years old, as of 2016. But the median Iowa voter this year will be much older than that. The preponderance of voters over age 50 could influence the outcome of the Democratic race for governor as well as the general election.

For decades, older Americans have voted at higher rates than middle-aged people, who in turn have voted at higher rates than young adults. The pattern holds for presidential elections but is more pronounced in midterm years, when turnout drops off significantly among younger voters.

The numbers in this table come from the statewide statistical report on the last midterm.

Turnout by age group, Iowa 2014 general election
Age 18-24 25-34 35-49 50-64 65 and over total
Registered 237,397 389,222 488,332 564,865 458,866 2,138,683
Total voted 56,020 118,679 234,020 379,881 346,538 1,135,138
Turnout rate 23.6% 30.5% 47.9% 67.3% 75.5% 53.1%
Percent of ballots cast 4.9% 10.5% 20.6% 33.5% 30.5% 100%

About 64 percent of Iowans who voted in the last midterm were at least 50 years old. Only about one-sixth were under 35.

The breakdown was similar in 2010, when more than 60 percent of Iowans who cast ballots were over age 50, and about one-sixth were under 35.

Turnout by age group, Iowa 2010 general election
Age 18-24 25-34 35-49 50-64 65 and over total
Registered 248,766 388,149 514,112 550,169 422,920 2,124,116
Total voted 59,861 119,510 257,406 378,349 310,259 1,125,386
Turnout rate 24.1% 30.8% 50.1% 68.8% 73.4% 53.0%
Percent of ballots cast 5.3% 10.6% 22.9% 33.6% 27.6% 100%

Compare to the last presidential election:

Turnout by age group, Iowa 2016 general election
Age 18-24 25-34 35-49 50-64 65 and over total
Registered 258,528 398,692 500,871 564,654 487,158 2,209,903
Total voted 142,252 220,668 350,907 452,328 406,478 1,572,633
Turnout rate 55.0% 55.4% 70.1% 80.1% 83.4% 71.2%
Percent of ballots cast 9.0% 14.0% 22.3% 28.8% 25.8% 100%

Turnout was substantially higher among all age groups in 2016, compared to the previous general election. But among voters under 35, the turnout rate more than doubled. It rose more modestly among older cohorts. So while the 2016 electorate in Iowa was still rich in life experience–more than half the voters were at least 50–it was younger than the group that participates in midterm elections.

If Virginia’s November 2017 elections are any guide, younger Americans are far more politically engaged now than they were in 2010 or 2014. But even if voter registration and turnout sharply increases among Iowans under 35 this year, there simply aren’t enough millennials to match the influence of the older cohorts.

An older electorate doesn’t mean Iowa Democrats can’t do well in November. Look at the figures from 2006, when Chet Culver convincingly defeated the Republican nominee for governor, and Democrats made big gains in the Iowa House and Senate.

Turnout by age group, Iowa 2006 general election
Age 18-24 25-34 35-49 50-64 65 and over total
Registered 239,189 334,664 531,808 485,029 390,771 1,981,464
Total voted 51,776 101,015 275,648 334,672 281,346 1,044,459
Turnout rate 21.6% 30.2% 51.8% 69.0% 72.0% 52.7%
Percent of ballots cast 5.0% 9.7% 26.4% 32.0% 26.9% 100%

Iowans over 50 cast nearly 60 percent of the ballots in 2006, and the percentage of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 was comparable to 2010 and 2014, both Republican landslide years. Notably, the turnout rate among registered Democrats in 2006 (62.2 percent) nearly matched the 64.9 percent turnout among Republicans. In contrast, GOP voters participated at much higher levels in the last two midterms, with 69.0 percent turnout in 2010 and 68.2 percent in 2014. Just 56.5 percent and 56.7 percent of registered Iowa Democrats cast ballots in those elections.

Clearly Democrats are hoping for a surge in youth voting, as the party performs better among millennials than among the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, or Gen X-ers. In addition, younger Iowans are more racially diverse than their older counterparts. Republican candidates typically benefit from a whiter electorate. But Democrats arguably don’t need historic youth turnout for a good midterm.

They do need to field candidates who can appeal to older voters as well as to millennials and Gen-Xers.

A few words about this year’s primary election, in which record numbers of Iowa Democrats are running for state and federal offices. The last competitive Democratic race for governor was in 2006. The Secretary of State’s website has posted a turnout report with that year’s county-level numbers for the primary, but not statistics on voters in different age groups. Democrats had no hard-fought statewide primaries in the last two midterm years. (Roxanne Conlin gained 77.8 percent of the vote in a three-way 2010 primary for U.S. Senate.)

For lack of a better election to compare to this year’s environment, here are figures from Iowa’s 2016 Democratic primary, when four candidates ran for U.S. Senate.

Turnout by age group, Iowa 2016 Democratic primary
Age 18-24 25-34 35-49 50-64 65 and over total
Registered 57,575 107,862 137,138 183,012 182,009 667,596
Total voted 2,764 6,111 11,991 29,970 50,262 101,098
Turnout rate 4.8% 5.7% 8.7% 16.4% 27.6% 15.1%
Percent of ballots cast 2.7% 6.0% 11.9% 29.6% 49.7% 100%

The Democratic primary electorate was heavily skewed toward older voters, much more so than the 2016 general election. Nearly half the Iowa Democrats who cast ballots in June 2016 were at least 65 years old, and nearly 80 percent were over 50. Less than 10 percent were under 35, and only about 20 percent were between 18 and 49.

This year’s Democratic primary should attract many more voters in all age groups. Five of the seven gubernatorial candidates have had paid field organizers working for months. Three have already started airing television commercials, and two more may buy radio or tv advertising before June. (In 2016, Patty Judge was the only U.S. Senate candidate to place television ads before the primary, and her spots ran for just a couple of weeks.) The competitive Democratic races in Iowa’s first, third, and fourth Congressional districts, along with two candidates running for secretary of state, should also drive turnout for the 2018 primary.

I haven’t seen any campaign’s internal polling numbers, but most politics-watchers expect a tight race for governor. Although every contender has fans young and old, observations at Democratic gatherings and hundreds of conversations in real life and on social media lead me to believe that Nate Boulton and Cathy Glasson are the likely beneficiaries if millennial turnout shatters all records. Activists over 50 seem more likely to be backing or leaning toward Fred Hubbell, John Norris, or Andy McGuire.

I sense more resistance among older Democrats to Glasson, who is claiming the left flank, and to Boulton, by far the youngest candidate in the field. Glasson’s opening television commercial focuses on single-payer health care, which none of the other well-funded gubernatorial candidates have embraced as a goal at the state level. Boulton’s most recent television commercial looks like an effort to improve his standing among older voters.

Even though Glasson and Boulton have the resources for large field operations, and other campaigns will also be working to identify and mobilize younger supporters, I’ll be surprised if Iowans over 50 don’t make up a solid majority of the Democrats who vote on June 5.

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