Lessons of 2018: High turnout doesn't only help Democrats

First in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2018 state and federal elections. Since publication, I have updated numbers with official totals.

Fred Hubbell received more votes than any Democratic nominee for Iowa governor since Harold Hughes was re-elected in the 1964 Democratic landslide. He gained more votes than most of the candidates elected Iowa governor in the past 50 years, including Terry Branstad five of the six times he was on the ballot. Nevertheless, Hubbell lost to Governor Kim Reynolds by about 39,000 votes, according to unofficial returns (UPDATE: The final margin was about 36,000 votes.)

Anecdotal reports of long lines at Iowa polling places on November 6 cheered Hubbell supporters, but the outcome of the governor’s race is a reminder that high turnout doesn’t only help Democrats.

Until the statewide statistical report on Iowa’s 2018 general election comes out in January, we won’t have official numbers showing how many Democrats, Republicans, and no-party voters participated. But we do know:

  • Iowans set a record for total votes cast in a midterm election. At least 1,314,662 people made a choice in the governor’s race. That number will increase somewhat as some late-arriving and provisional ballots are counted. UPDATE: official returns showed 1,327,638 ballots marked in the governor’s race. Eight years ago, 1,133,430 Iowans voted in the general election. Turnout was only slightly higher in 2014 (1,140,106).
  • The turnout rate for this year’s election was approximately 60 percent. (2,170,012 Iowans were registered to vote as of November 1; thousands more may have registered on election day.) Iowa hasn’t exceeded 60 percent turnout in a non-presidential year since 1994. UPDATE: The final turnout figure was around 61.5 percent.
  • Reynolds received at least 662,633 votes to 623,099 for Hubbell. Winning narrowly (50.3 percent to 47.5 percent), her vote total was only a few thousand below the 666,023 votes Branstad received in 2014, when he clobbered Jack Hatch by 59 percent to 37.3 percent. UPDATE: Official returns showed 667,275 votes for Reynolds and 630,986 for Hubbell; Reynolds exceeded even Branstad’s highest-ever vote total.
  • Every other time Branstad ran for governor, he received fewer votes than Hubbell won this year. He won 566,395 votes when beating Bonnie Campbell by 15 points in 1994. (Turnout was about 62.3 percent that year.) He won 592,494 votes when beating Governor Chet Culver by nearly 10 points in 2010 (53.3 percent turnout).
  • Bleeding Heartland will publish a more detailed county-level analysis of the gubernatorial vote in the coming days. For now, note that turnout increased substantially in the best-performing counties for Democrats. Population growth could account for some of the higher participation, but many precincts that aren’t growing also had more voters cast ballots this year.

  • At least 68,012 Johnson County residents voted, and Hubbell had a 30,500 vote advantage in that county, covering the Iowa City metro area. Turnout increased by 28 percent compared to four years ago, when Johnson County’s total vote in the governor’s race was 52,959.
  • At least 101,261 people voted for governor in Linn County, containing the Cedar Rapids metro. That’s about 16 percent more than the 86,950 people who voted there in the 2014 governor’s race. Hubbell received nearly 14,000 more votes than Reynolds in Linn.
  • At least 197,788 people voted in Polk County, Iowa’s largest by far in population. That’s almost 20 percent more votes than the 165,473 cast in Polk four years ago. Hubbell had a 35,000 vote edge over Reynolds here. UPDATE: Hubbell’s final margin in Polk was nearly 38,000, and official returns showed 206,881 ballots marked for a candidate for governor.
  • Traditionally, Democrats have believed that netting 30,000 votes in Polk puts a nominee on track to win statewide. Unfortunately for Hubbell, turnout was also high in strong Republican counties. Picking a few in the northwest corner:

  • At least 14,920 people voted in Sioux County, more than 10 percent above turnout of 13,484 in Iowa’s reddest county four years ago. Reynolds netted nearly 10,000 votes in Sioux County alone.
  • 10,671 people voted this year in Plymouth County, about a 15 percent increase from the 9,281 who voted there four years ago. Reynolds netted more than 5,000 votes here.
  • 5,171 people voted in Lyon County, 17 percent more than the 4,411 who voted there four years ago. Reynolds netted 3,400 votes here.
  • Keep in mind that Iowa Republicans are more reliable voters than their Democratic counterparts, even in good years for Democrats like 2002 (when Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Tom Vilsack were comfortably re-elected) and 2006 (when Chet Culver won the governor’s race and Democrats gained control of both legislative chambers).

    Turnout by party in Iowa midterms
    Party registration 2002 2006 2010 2014
    Democrats registered 537,425 619,248 699,963 661,878
    Democrats voting 353,584 384,983 395,312 374,990
    Democratic turnout 65.8% 62.2% 56.5% 56.7%
    GOP registered 589,517 595,464 648,646 663,177
    GOP voting 412,863 386,382 447,445 452,283
    GOP turnout 70.0% 64.9% 69.0% 68.2%
    no-party registered 685,329 766,752 773,282 807,088
    no-party voting 254,753 273,094 281,546 305,108
    no-party turnout 37.2% 35.6% 36.5% 37.8%
    total registered 1,812,271 1,981,464 2,124,116 2,138,683
    total voting 1,021,200 1,044,459 1,125,386 1,135,138
    total turnout 56.3% 52.7% 53.0% 53.1%

    Democrats needed substantially higher participation compared to 2010 and 2014 just to be in the game. But higher Democratic turnout was a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. Reynolds was able to gain the votes she needed to overcome Hubbell’s numbers.

    Last night I recalled how John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign set a vote goal of 700,000 for Iowa, assuming that would be enough, since Al Gore had carried Iowa in 2000 with 638,517 votes. Kerry exceeded his campaign’s targets in many counties, gaining 741,898 votes statewide. Unfortunately, surging Iowa Republican turnout pushed President George W. Bush about 10,000 votes ahead.

    On Iowa Democratic social media feeds, some disappointed progressives are already blaming Hubbell for “blowing it” or having “no grassroots” support. They say this loss proves Democrats need to nominate candidates who can inspire the base.

    Reality check: Hubbell outpolled most people who have been elected governor of Iowa. Even though many highly engaged Democratic activists preferred other candidates in the primary, Hubbell generated strong base turnout in November. Turnout on large college campuses exceeded previous records for Iowa midterm elections. Before last night, if you’d told Iowa politics watchers Hubbell would win more than 620,000 votes, most would have said that would be enough to beat Reynolds.

    Forthcoming posts will further examine the returns in the governor’s race.

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