Lessons of 2018: Mid-sized cities bigger problem for Democrats than rural areas

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

Fred Hubbell's narrow defeat has generated a new round of conversations about Iowa Democrats struggling outside major metro areas. Although Hubbell received a historically high number of votes for a Democratic candidate for governor and carried Polk County by a larger margin than any previous nominee from his party, he finished 36,600 votes behind Kim Reynolds statewide, according to unofficial results.

Hubbell outpolled Reynolds in only eleven of Iowa's 99 counties. In contrast, Tom Vilsack carried 48 counties in 1998, when he became the first Democrat elected governor in three decades. He won 68 counties when re-elected in 2002, and Chet Culver nearly matched that result, beating his Republican opponent in 62 counties in 2006.

While many commentators have focused on declining Democratic performance among rural voters, attrition in Iowa's mid-size cities is a more pressing problem for the party's candidates at all levels.

This post focuses on the vote for governor in seventeen "micropolitan" counties. Iowa has 40 "nonmetropolitan regional trade centers--counties containing cities of from 5,000 to just under 30,000," Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson explained in a Bleeding Heartland post earlier this year.

We pay particular attention to these cities because a large fraction of Iowa’s nonmetro residents work, shop, and seek and receive health care and other services from these centers. They are rural Iowa’s socio-economic anchors, and their collective and individual vitality is important to monitor and maintain. [...]

Of these rural trade centers, there are seventeen nonmetro areas with core urban populations of 10,000 or more for which reliable economic data are available. They are called micropolitan statistical areas. They contain Iowa’s major mid-sized cities.

In descending order by county population, here are those micropolitan areas, with each county's largest city in parentheses.

Clinton (Clinton)
Cerro Gordo (Mason City)
Muscatine (Muscatine)
Marshall (Marshalltown)
Des Moines (Burlington)
Jasper (Newton)
Webster (Fort Dodge)
Wapello (Ottumwa)
Lee (Keokuk)
Marion (Pella/Knoxville)
Boone (Boone)
Mahaska (Oskaloosa)
Carroll (Carroll)
Buena Vista (Storm Lake)
Jefferson (Fairfield)
Dickinson (Spirit Lake)
Clay (Spencer)

This table lists the same counties in descending order from most to least votes cast in the governor's race. Some counties with smaller populations had higher turnout. I obtained all vote totals from the Iowa Secretary of State's website on November 13. Most of the counties had completed their canvass, so the numbers represent official results. For some counties, only unofficial figures were available, but those will not change substantially in the coming days.

How Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds performed in micropolitan counties
County Hubbell votes Hubbell vote share Reynolds votes Reynolds vote share
Cerro Gordo 8,971 47.3% 9,614 50.7%
Clinton 9,047 49.6% 8,847 48.6%
Jasper 7,234 45.4% 8,377 52.6%
Des Moines 8,038 53.1% 6,827 45.1%
Marion 5,249 34.9% 9,479 63.0%
Muscatine 7,081 47.3% 7,535 50.3%
Marshall 7,095 48.4% 7,243 49.4%
Webster 6,132 43.3% 7,727 54.6%
Lee 6,387 50.5% 5,973 47.3%
Boone 5,793 47.6% 6,097 50.1%
Wapello 5,480 45.5% 6,313 52.4%
Carroll 3,162 35.3% 5,628 62.9%
Dickinson 3,134 35.4% 5,564 62.9%
Mahaska 2,409 28.0% 6,007 69.9%
Jefferson 3,750 53.0% 3,146 44.5%
Clay 2,417 35.0% 4,364 63.1%
Buena Vista 2,649 40.4% 3,771 57.4%
all 17 counties 94,028 44.6% 112,512 53.3%

UPDATE: For those who prefer maps to tables, click on any county on this map to bring up the same data (vote totals and percentages for Hubbell and Reynolds).

County Name

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

Hubbell above 50%

Hubbell won with less than 50%

Reynolds won with less than 50%

Reynolds between 50% and 60%

Reynolds above 60%

Collectively, this group of counties provided 18,484 more votes to Reynolds than Hubbell, roughly half her statewide margin of victory.

Several of these mid-size cities (notably Burlington, Ottumwa, Keokuk, and Mason City) were strong Democratic territory for decades. This table compares Hubbell's advantage or deficit in micropolitan counties with margins for Iowa's only three successful Democratic campaigns for governor in the past 50 years.

Margin for Democratic candidates in micropolitan counties
County Hubbell 2018 Culver 2006 Vilsack 2002 Vilsack 1998
Cerro Gordo -643 4,304 2,915 2,161
Clinton 200 4,029 1,627 1,093
Jasper -1,143 1,618 2,669 1,491
Des Moines 1,211 4,528 3,082 3,592
Marion -4,230 -1,455 -655 -1,145
Muscatine -454 1,865 233 129
Marshall -148 1,167 1,368 947
Webster -1,595 1,773 2,091 829
Lee 414 3,504 3,741 3,446
Boone -304 1,211 2,137 1,345
Wapello -833 3,167 3,039 2,773
Carroll -2,466 -35 251 -54
Dickinson -2,430 -160 -20 95
Mahaska -3,598 -1,507 -940 -1,313
Jefferson 604 1,068 -247 527
Clay -1,947 -613 -117 -53
Buena Vista -1,122 -703 -103 -417
all 17 counties -18,484 23,761 21,071 15,446

Matching Vilsack's or Culver's showing in micropolitan counties would have swung the election to Hubbell.

Granted, neither Culver nor Vilsack ever ran against a sitting governor, as Hubbell did this year. Vilsack himself enjoyed the incumbency advantage in 2002. But many of these cities used to vote for Democratic nominees regardless. Wapello and Lee were among just four counties to favor Bonnie Campbell in her 1994 race against Governor Terry Branstad. (The other two were Johnson and Story, home of Iowa's largest state universities.)

Eroding support in mid-size working-class communities is affecting Democrats across the country, not only in Iowa. I haven't seen any conclusive research on why that trend took hold. Many of Iowa's micropolitan counties have lost population in recent years, as Swenson showed, and the remaining residents are older on average. In addition, these seventeen counties have not "recovered employment levels enjoyed before the great recession" of the last decade, Swenson wrote.

These cities are more likely to depend significantly on manufacturing jobs, were more likely to have endured much higher unemployment levels than the state average over the course of recovery, and typically suffered longer average durations of unemployment. It is troubling to see that their recovery has stalled and is in fact moving in the wrong direction of late. [...]

What do economic stagnation and population loss suggest regarding political attitudes, political influence, and policy choices? First, it is abundantly clear that the overall abilities of most nonmetro governments to provide public goods is eroding. Communities, counties, and schools must make hard choices about pubic services in light of stagnant-to-declining tax bases, fewer households, and paltry income growth. There is in Iowa a clear and growing distinction in the breadth and substance of nonmetro versus metro public goods. One needs only to visit the declining micros to see the evidence.

Second, nonmetro Iowa is incrementally aging as each decade posts fewer and fewer younger households and families. Older voters are less inclined to support conventional local public goods provision than younger voters with children. They are less prone to favor school bond issues, new parks or recreation facilities, or state policies that appear to benefit growing metropolitan residents more so than struggling rural residents.

Third, the difference in average educational attainment between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan voters is growing. The metro county (unweighted) county average of adult residents with at least a bachelor’s degree was 28.3 percent according to the most recent Census estimates. The micro’s fraction was 21.0 percent, and all other Iowa counties scored 18.0 percent. [...] research consistently confirms that liberal policies and programs rise consistently with educational attainment in an area.

White Americans without a college degree are an increasingly solid part of the Republican base and comprise the majority of the voting-age population in Iowa's micropolitan counties.

It may be tempting to conclude that a wealthy businessman from Des Moines was simply the wrong candidate to appeal to largely working-class residents of mid-size cities. Unfortunately, Democratic candidates who were deeply rooted in their communities have lost many recent elections in the same areas.

2010: Republicans defeated Democratic incumbents to win Iowa House seats based in Boone, Muscatine, and Oskaloosa, as well as the Senate district including Ottumwa. Many observers (including me) saw Mark Chelgren's Senate win as a fluke, but the GOP held that seat in 2014 and 2018.

2014: Republicans defeated Democratic Senator Daryl Beall to win the Iowa Senate seat including Fort Dodge. (Redistricting played a role in that outcome.)

2016: Republicans defeated six Democratic senators, picking up seats covering Marshalltown, Muscatine, and Burlington (the last was a race neither party targeted). The GOP nominee barely fell short in the Senate district including Keokuk, despite getting no financial support from his party.

2018: Republicans gained a Democratic-held open Iowa House seat covering Fort Dodge, defeated a House Democrat representing the Fairfield area, and won the open Senate seats including Newton and Clinton. Popular Democratic Senator Amanda Ragan barely held on in the Mason City area, where she had been re-elected comfortably three times.

A vote anywhere counts the same in a statewide election, so why should Democrats be particularly worried about mid-sized cities? Couldn't the 2022 nominee for governor or Senator Joni Ernst's 2020 challenger win by holding down GOP margins in rural Iowa, or by squeezing more votes out of urban strongholds and suburban precincts that are trending toward Democrats?

Perhaps. As Iowa's largest counties gain population, especially among young adults seeking greater economic opportunities, Democrats have the potential to win statewide races without carrying nearly as many counties as Vilsack and Culver did.

However, there is no path to a Democratic-controlled state House or Senate without holding more legislative seats in cities with populations between 10,000 and 30,000. Improving Democratic performance in those areas needs to be a top priority.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that a lot of "Kennedy Democrats" and especially "FDR Democrats" have died or moved to warmer climates since Vilsack was first elected governor. That may also be a factor in the trend away from Democrats in many blue-collar cities and towns.

Top image: Photograph by Bill Whittaker of a street in Keokuk, Iowa (Lee County), via Wikimedia Commons.

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