Lessons of 2018: Fred Hubbell outperformed Cindy Axne in IA-03

Sixth in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2018 state and federal elections.

Cindy Axne beat two-term U.S. Representative David Young in Iowa's third Congressional district, while Fred Hubbell lost to Governor Kim Reynolds. So Axne must have done better than Hubbell, right?


Hubbell received more votes than Axne in each of IA-03's sixteen counties, according to unofficial results. And contrary to what the red and blue counties above might lead you to believe, Hubbell outpolled Reynolds in the third Congressional district as a whole.

Iowa politics-watchers quickly noticed last week that Hubbell received nearly 34,000 fewer votes statewide than did the four Democratic Congressional nominees combined. Pat Rynard's tally of county-level results from the first district showed challenger Abby Finkenauer received 5,307 more votes than Hubbell, while GOP incumbent Rod Blum received 8,456 fewer votes than Reynolds.

The largest disparity was in the fourth Congressional district, a special case because many Republicans and conservative-leaning independents were repelled by Iowa's most notorious racist. It's a safe bet that conservatives who voted for Representative Steve King's challenger J.D. Scholten would never have supported any Democrat for governor.

I'm focusing on the third district today because a conventional wisdom seems to have settled in among Democratic activists: if Hubbell had matched Axne's performance, he might have won the governor's race.

All numbers in this table come from the unofficial results on the Secretary of State's website. The figures will change slightly when county auditors certify vote totals, but those adjustments won't alter the big picture. I listed the counties in descending order from most to least votes cast. NOVEMBER 15 UPDATE: I've edited this table to reflect official results after county auditors completed the canvass. The Democrats' margin and share of the vote further increased in Polk County.

How Fred Hubbell and Cindy Axne performed in IA-03 counties
County Hubbell votes Hubbell vote share Axne votes Axne vote share
Polk 120,257 58.1% 115,877 56.4%
Dallas 19,804 47.4% 18,593 45.4%
Pottawattamie 14,234 41.7% 14,044 41.6%
Warren 10,942 45.1% 10,363 43.1%
Madison 2,739 35.8% 2,589 34.0%
Mills 2,191 34.6% 2,146 34.0%
Cass 1,886 32.4% 1,777 30.8%
Page 1,839 32.6% 1,741 30.9%
Guthrie 1,738 34.5% 1,622 32.5%
Union 1,835 37.5% 1,717 35.4%
Montgomery 1,220 30.8% 1,209 30.6%
Adair 1,167 33.9% 1,067 31.4%
Fremont 992 32.9% 990 32.8%
Taylor 759 31.0% 673 27.7%
Ringgold 804 34.7% 716 31.5%
Adams 549 31.4% 518 29.9%
District-wide 182,956 50.9% 175,519 49.3%

Now, look at how the leading candidates for governor did in the same counties. UPDATE: I've edited this table to include official numbers as well.

How Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds performed in IA-03 counties
County Hubbell votes Hubbell vote share Reynolds votes Reynolds vote share
Polk 120,257 58.1% 82,473 39.9%
Dallas 19,804 47.4% 21,189 50.8%
Pottawattamie 14,234 41.7% 19,036 55.8%
Warren 10,816 45.0% 12,703 52.3%
Madison 2,739 35.8% 4,754 62.1%
Mills 2,191 34.6% 3,945 62.4%
Cass 1,886 32.4% 3,813 65.6%
Page 1,839 32.6% 3,702 65.7%
Guthrie 1,738 34.5% 3,169 62.9%
Union 1,835 37.5% 2,949 60.2%
Montgomery 1,220 30.8% 2,648 66.8%
Adair 1,167 33.9% 2,213 64.3%
Fremont 992 32.9% 1,956 64.9%
Taylor 759 31.0% 1,632 66.8%
Ringgold 804 34.7% 1,475 63.7%
Adams 549 31.4% 1,160 66.4%
District-wide 182,956 50.9% 168,817 47.0%

The lopsided margins for Reynolds in smaller counties point to the Democrats' well-known troubles with the rural electorate. But Hubbell ran up the score in Polk County and kept it close enough in larger nearby counties to finish 11,233 votes and 3.2 points ahead of the governor in IA-03. Axne gained 5,221 more votes than Young, beating him by half as large a margin (49.0 percent to 47.5 percent). UPDATE: Following the canvass, Hubbell and Axne both increased their margins of victory. Hubbell finished 14,139 votes ahead of Reynolds (50.9 percent to 47.0 percent), while Axne finished 7,684 votes ahead of Young (49.3 percent to 47.1 percent).

My intention is not to detract from what Axne accomplished. She may be the hardest-working Iowa Congressional challenger in a generation. She took down an incumbent who seemed well-positioned to survive even a Democratic wave. Arguably she faced a tougher opponent than Hubbell did; Young had visited every county in his district every month for years and wasn't personally connected to the Medicaid privatization debacle or underfunding Iowa schools.

My goal is to caution Democrats against jumping to conclusions, such as: Hubbell lost because he wasn't as dynamic as Axne, or because he failed to inspire the base, or because he had less appeal among rural and small-town voters. The numbers don't support those narratives. Hubbell did a little better than Axne across the board, in raw votes and share of the vote. Why that happened, we can only guess.

Another question that comes to mind is easier to answer. Why didn't Hubbell's performance in IA-03 translate into a statewide victory? Consider the following demographic realities:

  • The third district is more urban and suburban than Iowa as a whole.

More than half the votes in IA-03 came from Polk County. Des Moines is Iowa's most populous city by far, and its largest suburbs (West Des Moines and Ankeny) are also in the top ten, along with Council Bluffs (Pottawattamie County). Thousands of Dallas and Warren County voters live in suburbs as well.

Iowa's other three Congressional districts contain some sizable cities, but none that dominate the district the way the Des Moines metro area does in IA-03.

  • The third district has a higher share of college-educated voters.

A large body of research points to white Americans without a college degree as an increasingly reliable source of Republican votes. U.S. Census Bureau data from July 2017 indicate that 27.2 percent of Iowans over age 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher level of education. The same figure is 35.6 percent for Polk County residents and 47.4 percent for Dallas County, one of the highest in the state after Johnson and Story (where large state universities are located).

  • The third district is less white.

Iowa's largest county is home to more African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans than any other part of the state. While about 85.7 percent of Iowans are non-Hispanic whites, only 77.6 percent of Polk County residents are.

  • The third district is more politically balanced.

As of November 1, the IA-03 counties contained 173,094 active registered Democrats, 172,116 Republicans, and 170,308 no-party voters. The statewide numbers on the same date: 627,430 Democrats, 649,944 Republicans, and 719,889 no-party voters.

Bottom line: If our state's demographics matched the third Congressional district, Hubbell would probably be the governor-elect.

UPDATE: Hubbell's margin and share of the vote increased when Polk County reported official numbers following the canvass. Hubbell received 120,257 votes (58.1 percent), and Reynolds 82,473 votes (39.9 percent). In the Congressional race, Axne received 115,877 votes (56.4 percent) to 82,404 (40.1 percent) for Young. Total ballots cast: 207,423 (66.8 percent turnout in the county).

LATE UPDATE: For those who prefer results in map form, here are the Congressional results in the IA-03 counties. Click on any county to see the vote totals and percentages for Axne and Young.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

Axne above 50%

Young between 50% and 60%

Young above 60%

Here are the votes for governor in the IA-03 counties. Click on any county to see the vote totals and percentages for Hubbell and Reynolds.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

Hubbell above 50%

Reynolds between 50% and 60%

Reynolds above 60%

  • Interesting

    Great analysis! This really gives us something to think about. Friends in the rural part of the 3rd were very upset that Hubble never came out to their counties. I know rural democrats in the 4th feel that way too.

    With rural counties rarely giving democrats at any level more than 40% of the vote, does it make sense for statewide democrats to campaign more in the rural part of the state. It didn't help Norris get the nomination, but would it have helped Hubble? Money wasn't an issue. Turnout wasn't an issue. Yet most rural counties vote for Reynolds at 60% or higher. How can that be turned around?

  • Norris/Hubbell

    "It didn’t help Norris get the nomination..."
    That's because securing the Dem nomination seems to place the winner in a position almost diametrically opposed to what is needed to win statewide. Sorry, but "win the nomination, lose the election" is not a good look for us.
    Looking to the future, Sincere kudos to Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer for successfully cutting through the bs, giving us an opportunity for legislative dignity once again.

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