Eighth in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2018 state and federal elections.
Last week, Bleeding Heartland examined votes for governor in counties containing Iowa’s mid-sized cities, which collectively accounted for roughly 15 percent of Iowans who participated in this year’s election.
Today’s focus is ten counties where more than half of this year’s Iowa voters live. Whereas Fred Hubbell underperformed in all seventeen “micropolitan” areas, the results in larger counties were a mixed bag for the Democratic nominee.
LARGEST COUNTIES CONTRIBUTE A GROWING SHARE OF STATEWIDE VOTE
Here are Iowa’s largest counties by population, with each county’s main city in parentheses.
Polk (Des Moines metro area)
Linn (Cedar Rapids metro area)
Scott (Iowa side of the Quad Cities)
Johnson (Iowa City metro area)
Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls)
Woodbury (Sioux City)
Pottawattamie (Council Bluffs)
Dallas (farthest-west suburbs of Des Moines)
The first table shows the total votes cast in each county for any candidate for governor, including write-ins. All numbers for this year’s election came from the Iowa Secretary of State’s results website on November 18. Eight counties had updated totals following the canvass; Linn and Scott still showed unofficial figures. NOVEMBER 25 UPDATE: The table now includes official totals from all counties. Linn numbers did not change, and the vote total increased by nine in Scott.
The counties appear in descending order from most to least votes cast in 2018. Turnout was higher in Dallas and lower in Woodbury relative to those counties’ population.
The electorate has grown in every county containing a large metro area, but the sharpest increases are in Dallas, Polk, Johnson, Linn, and Story counties, reflecting urban sprawl over the past couple of decades. In fact, Dallas was outside the top ten vote-producing counties in 1998, below four micropolitan counties (Cerro Gordo, Clinton, Marshall, and Jasper) and Warren County.
|Votes cast for governor in Iowa’s largest counties|
|all 10 counties||696,693||565,539||544,574||504,696||479,599||426,545|
|share of statewide vote||52.5%||50.1%||48.5%||48.0%||46.8%||44.6%|
Every county tallied more votes this year, no surprise given the highest statewide turnout for an Iowa midterm election since 1994.
Note the growing share of votes from population centers, relative to the state as a whole. Most Iowa counties have steadily lost residents for decades as economic growth has concentrated in a small number of metro areas and college towns. We can expect that trend to continue, so that each election cycle, the largest counties will provide an ever-higher share of total votes cast.
As more Iowans settle in urban or suburban neighborhoods, a Democratic candidate has more paths to win a statewide race without carrying dozens of counties, like Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver did in 1998, 2002, and 2006.
However, not every county with a large population consistently favors Democratic candidates.
ONLY SOME LARGE COUNTIES ARE TRENDING TOWARD DEMOCRATS
Hubbell outpolled Governor Kim Reynolds by a historically wide margin in Iowa’s most urban counties.
|How Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds performed in largest counties|
|County||Hubbell votes||Hubbell vote share||Reynolds votes||Reynolds vote share|
|all 10 counties||385,504||55.3%||295,499||42.4%|
UPDATE: I put the same numbers into an interactive map. Click on any county for vote totals and percentages for Hubbell and Reynolds.
Hubbell above 70%
Hubbell between 50% and 60%
Hubbell won with less than 50%
Reynolds between 50% and 60%
This table compares Hubbell’s advantage or deficit in the largest counties with margins for Iowa’s only successful Democratic candidates for governor in the past 50 years.
|Margin for Democratic candidates in largest counties|
|County||Hubbell 2018||Culver 2006||Vilsack 2002||Vilsack 1998|
|all 10 counties||90,022||80,197||65,218||59,198|
Residents of Polk, Johnson, and Story delivered record victories for a Democratic nominee for governor or president. Even Barack Obama never came out of those counties with such a large advantage.
The Dallas County number is less bad than the trendline suggests. Given the massive growth of wealthy suburbs west of Des Moines, Hubbell did well to keep Reynolds’ margin so low. Republican candidates have carried this county by thousands of votes in the recent past.
Compared to Culver and Vilsack, though, Hubbell underperformed in other urban strongholds, particularly Dubuque, Scott, Woodbury, and Pottawattamie. Unofficial results show Reynolds received about 36,000 more votes statewide than her challenger. Hubbell could have made up a third of that margin by matching previous Democratic nominees’ results in Dubuque and not getting blown out in Woodbury and Pottawattamie.
This table shows the current political make-up of the largest counties, using statistics on active registered voters from the Secretary of State’s office, as of November 1. These figures do not take into account anyone who registered to vote on election day.
|Voter registrations in Iowa’s largest counties (November 2018)|
|Polk||291,285||116,906 (40.1%)||82,482 (28.3%)||88,764 (30.5%)|
|Linn||145,150||52,293 (36.0%)||38,164 (26.3%)||53,042 (36.5%)|
|Scott||115,337||35,821 (31.1%)||31,335 (27.2%)||47,264 (41.0%)|
|Johnson||94,461||44,754 (47.4%)||18,221 (19.3%)||30,540 (32.3%)|
|Black Hawk||82,207||30,130 (36.7%)||21,078 (25.6%)||30,164 (36.7%)|
|Story||61,882||20,348 (32.9%)||17,511 (28.3%)||23,177 (37.5%)|
|Dubuque||65,261||26,043 (39.9%)||16,223 (24.9%)||22,488 (34.4%)|
|Dallas||57,147||14,525 (25.4%)||19,996 (35.0%)||22,091 (38.7%)|
|Woodbury||57,746||17,862 (30.9%)||20,014 (34.6%)||19,422 (33.6%)|
|Pottawattamie||57,168||15,464 (27.1%)||21,147 (37.0%)||19,934 (34.9%)|
In many ways, the results line up as we’d expect. For instance:
- Reynolds carried the three largest counties where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
- Hubbell did best in Johnson, which has the highest percentage of registered Democrats and the lowest percentage of Republicans.
- The share of the vote for Hubbell and Reynolds was comparable in Linn and Black Hawk counties, which have similar proportions of Democrats, Republicans, and no-party voters.
On the other hand, some oddities stand out.
- Hubbell did far better in Story than in Scott, which have comparable partisan breakdowns.
- Hubbell’s share of the vote was higher in Dallas than in Pottawattamie or Woodbury, even though Democrats make up a higher percentage of the electorate in the latter two counties.
- Hubbell underperformed in Dubuque, which has the third-highest percentage of Democrats in the electorate, after Johnson and Polk. We’d expect Polk to be a strong county for a candidate with deep family roots and connections in Des Moines. Even so, the small margin for Hubbell in Dubuque is noticeable and will increase Democratic anxiety that Donald Trump’s victory in this solid blue county was no fluke.
Since voter registration numbers don’t fully explain the disparate election outcomes, I pulled together some other statistics that struck me as potentially relevant. Most of the information in the next table comes from U.S. Census Bureau data as of July 2017. The unemployment column draws on Iowa Workforce Development numbers from September 2018.
|Demographic, economic statistics in Iowa’s largest counties|
|County||white, not Latino||adults w/college degree||median household income||unemployment rate||poverty rate||under age 18||over age 65|
|State of Iowa||85.7%||27.2%||$54,570||2.1%||10.7%||23.3%||16.7%|
We see evidence of the widening partisan split among white voters, depending on education level. The best counties for Hubbell (Johnson and Story) have the highest share of Iowans with a college degree. The high percentage of college-educated Dallas County residents is likely the primary reason Reynolds fared worse there than one would guess base on the GOP voter registration advantage.
Conversely, the best large-population counties for Reynolds were Pottawattamie and Woodbury, which have relatively low numbers of college-educated adults.
Hubbell’s best counties had a younger population on the whole, with a smaller percentage of senior citizens.
In other respects, this table raises more questions than answers for me.
- Why didn’t Hubbell do better in Dubuque? That county has more college-educated voters as well as a higher percentage of registered Democrats than Black Hawk, yet Hubbell carried Black Hawk by 12 points and Dubuque by less than 1.5 points.
Is the Waterloo area’s greater racial diversity in the main explanatory factor? Or did Reynolds benefit from the national trend of white Catholics “drifting toward the Republican Party”? (I don’t have current statistics on the religious identities of Iowans, but Dubuque is among the most heavily Catholic counties.) Some Hubbell campaign commercials and direct mail pieces highlighted his longstanding support for Planned Parenthood, which could have backfired in this area.
- Linn and Scott counties are similar in terms of racial breakdown, education level, and percentage of senior citizens, so why did Hubbell win by 14 points in Linn but only by a little more than 3 points in Scott?
- Democrats often have better results in more racially diverse areas, yet Hubbell’s vote share better in Woodbury (the least white county on this list) was only a tiny bit higher than in Pottawattamie (the second most white of Iowa’s large urban counties).
- Median income, unemployment, and poverty levels do not appear to be correlated with voting patterns in these counties. Does that mean “it’s not the economy, stupid”?
- Higher-income Americans have historically favored Republican candidates. Will Democrats consolidate their gains among well-off suburbanites in Polk, Dallas, and Linn counties, or will this year be an anomaly because Trump repels so many college-educated voters?
Any relevant questions or insights are welcome in this thread.
Top image: On left, the main Polk County administrative office building in Des Moines. On right, Davenport City Hall in Scott County.