Lessons of 2018: Three keys to Abby Finkenauer's win in IA-01

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

Abby Finkenauer’s triumph over two-term U.S. Representative Rod Blum in the first Congressional district was one of this year’s most satisfying wins for Iowa Democrats.

The outcome wasn’t unexpected; leading forecasters saw IA-01 as a “lean Democratic” district for two months. Even so, the pick-up was hardly a given. Iowans tend to re-elect incumbents. Some of the 20 counties in IA-01 experienced the state’s biggest swings toward Republicans in 2016, and Blum ran about 5 points better than Donald Trump did in his district. Last month, Blum and his allies had claimed the incumbent was gaining on Finkenauer in internal polling.

But Blum’s campaign strategy–an aggressive mix of race-baiting television commercials, taxpayer-funded mailings that resembled electioneering, and Trump-like petty shots at journalists–couldn’t deliver the goods. Finkenauer received 170,342 votes to 153,442 for the incumbent (51.0 percent to 45.9 percent), according to official results.

Let’s take a closer look at how the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress (after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York) assembled that margin of victory.

VOTES FOR CONGRESS IN IA-01

Click on any red, pink, or blue county to bring up the vote totals and percentages for Blum and Finkenauer there.

County Name

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

Finkenauer between 50% and 60%

Blum won with less than 50%

Blum between 50% and 60%

For those who prefer a table, here are the results for Finkenauer and Blum in each county, listed in descending order from most to least votes cast in the Congressional race. All figures reflect official numbers from the Iowa Secretary of State’s website.

How Abby Finkenauer and Rod Blum performed in IA-01 counties
County Finkenauer votes Finkenauer vote share Blum votes Blum vote share
Linn 57,712 56.7% 40,733 40.0%
Black Hawk 29,667 55.9% 22,103 41.6%
Dubuque 22,359 52.3% 19,282 45.1%
Marshall 6,611 46.7% 7,124 50.4%
Benton 4,698 40.8% 6,465 55.8%
Bremer 5,182 45.4% 5,908 51.7%
Winneshiek 5,102 51.8% 4,364 44.3%
Jones 3,787 44.2% 4,490 52.4%
Jackson 3,797 44.6% 4,483 52.7%
Buchanan 3,977 47.1% 4,166 49.3%
Poweshiek 3,966 48.1% 4,044 49.1%
Fayette 3,701 45.2% 4,167 50.8%
Clayton 3,311 42.0% 4,320 54.7%
Iowa 3,099 40.8% 4,203 55.3%
Delaware 2,810 37.5% 4,475 59.7%
Tama 3,257 44.7% 3,780 51.9%
Allamakee 2,353 41.6% 3,073 54.4%
Mitchell 1,836 40.8% 2,518 55.9%
Howard 1,587 44.0% 1,878 52.0%
Worth 1,530 43.7% 1,866 53.2%
 
District-wide 170,342 51.0% 153,442 45.9%

A few points stand out.

Finkenauer racked up good margins in the largest counties.

Residents of IA-01 cast about 84.5 percent as many ballots in this general election as in the 2016 presidential election, according to the popular vote tracker compiled by David Wasserman and Ally Flinn of the Cook Political Report.

District-wide, Blum’s vote total dropped by more than 53,000 (about 25 percent) compared to 2016. Finkenauer received about 96 percent as many votes as Blum’s last Democratic challenger, Monica Vernon, who lost by 53.7 percent to 46.1 percent.

Finkenauer gained 98 percent as many votes in Linn County as Vernon did, even though Vernon has lived in Cedar Rapids for decades and served multiple terms on the city council. Blum managed only about 74 percent of his 2016 vote total in the district’s largest county.

Finkenauer received about 93 percent as many votes as Vernon did in Black Hawk County, containing the Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro; Blum received nearly 30 percent fewer votes this year in the district’s second-largest county.

In Dubuque, home base for both candidates, Finkenauer exceeded the number of votes cast for Vernon, while Blum’s total dropped by 27 percent compared to 2016.

The three largest counties provided 27,620 more votes for the challenger, a nice cushion. But that might not have been sufficient.

Finkenauer kept the race relatively close in counties she lost.

Although Blum carried sixteen of the district’s 20 counties, he won just one (Delaware) by more than 20 points. That was also the only county where Finkenauer finished below 40 percent. She held Blum below 50 percent in two of the counties he won and was between 6 and 15 points back in most of the others.

Not getting blown out in the smaller counties was important. While IA-01 contains three of Iowa’s ten largest cities, it is much less urban than the third Congressional district, where Democrat Cindy Axne defeated two-term Republican David Young.

Linn County provided about 30 percent of all votes cast in IA-01 this year. The district’s three largest counties accounted for about 59 percent of the total vote. Residents of Polk County (containing Des Moines and most of its suburbs) cast about 58 percent of this year’s votes in IA-03; that district’s three largest counties provided nearly 79 percent of the votes.

Axne could afford to finish below 40 percent in twelve counties (below 30 percent in two of them) because collectively, those counties provided only about one-fifth of her district’s votes. Losses on that scale in IA-01’s smaller communities would have wiped out Finkenauer’s leads in Linn, Black Hawk, and Dubuque.

Did Finkenauer merely benefit from the partisan lean of her district? After all, a few days before the election, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 23,000 in IA-01, but by fewer than 1,000 across IA-03.

When we compare results for the two highest-profile offices, it becomes clear that IA-01 voters were not destined to support anyone with a “D” next to her or his name. Finkenauer substantially outperformed the Democratic nominee for governor.

How Abby Finkenauer and Fred Hubbell performed in IA-01 counties
County Finkenauer votes Finkenauer vote share Hubbell votes Hubbell vote share
Linn 57,712 56.7% 56,767 55.6%
Black Hawk 29,667 55.9% 29,259 54.9%
Dubuque 22,359 52.3% 21,108 49.4%
Marshall 6,611 46.7% 7,095 48.4%
Benton 4,698 40.8% 4,482 38.5%
Bremer 5,182 45.4% 4,999 43.7%
Winneshiek 5,102 51.8% 4,785 48.5%
Jones 3,787 44.2% 3,650 42.4%
Jackson 3,797 44.6% 3,582 41.7%
Buchanan 3,977 47.1% 3,865 45.5%
Poweshiek 3,966 48.1% 3,998 48.1%
Fayette 3,701 45.2% 3,446 41.9%
Clayton 3,311 42.0% 2,978 37.6%
Iowa 3,099 40.8% 2,966 38.8%
Delaware 2,810 37.5% 2,667 34.8%
Tama 3,257 44.7% 3,238 44.2%
Allamakee 2,353 41.6% 2,165 38.1%
Mitchell 1,836 40.8% 1,704 37.6%
Howard 1,587 44.0% 1,422 39.3%
Worth 1,530 43.7% 1,382 39.1%
 
District-wide 170,342 51.0% 165,558 45.9%

At first glance, this table doesn’t look too bad for Fred Hubbell. District-wide, he received 4,784 fewer votes than Finkenauer. In most counties, his vote share was only a few points lower. He got more votes than Finkenauer in Marshall and Poweshiek and almost as many in Tama. (Those three counties are part of the Des Moines media market; tv ads for or against the IA-01 candidates ran on Cedar Rapids stations.)

Now look at how both leading candidates for governor fared in the same counties.

VOTES FOR GOVERNOR IN IA-01

Click on any county to bring up vote totals and percentages for Hubbell and Governor Kim Reynolds.

County Name

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

Hubbell between 50% and 60%

Hubbell won with less than 50%

Reynolds won with less than 50%

Reynolds between 50% and 60%

Reynolds above 60%

For readers who prefer all the results in one table:

How Kim Reynolds and Fred Hubbell performed in IA-01 counties
County Reynolds votes Reynolds vote share Hubbell votes Hubbell vote share
Linn 42,449 41.6% 56,767 55.6%
Black Hawk 22,786 42.8% 29,259 54.9%
Dubuque 20,532 48.0% 21,108 49.4%
Marshall 7,243 49.4% 7,095 48.4%
Benton 6,845 58.9% 4,482 38.5%
Bremer 6,220 54.3% 4,999 43.7%
Winneshiek 4,841 49.0% 4,785 48.5%
Jones 4,752 55.2% 3,650 42.4%
Jackson 4,744 55.2% 3,582 41.7%
Buchanan 4,400 51.8% 3,865 45.5%
Poweshiek 4,160 50.0% 3,998 48.1%
Fayette 4,528 55.0% 3,446 41.9%
Clayton 4,512 57.0% 2,978 37.6%
Iowa 4,499 58.8% 2,966 38.8%
Delaware 4,779 62.3% 2,667 34.8%
Tama 3,931 53.6% 3,238 44.2%
Allamakee 3,326 58.6% 2,165 38.1%
Mitchell 2,711 59.9% 1,704 37.6%
Howard 2,050 56.6% 1,422 39.3%
Worth 2,043 57.8% 1,382 39.1%
 
District-wide 161,351 48.0% 165,558 49.3%

I was skeptical when Ann Selzer’s September poll for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found Hubbell narrowly leading statewide but slightly trailing among respondents living in IA-01. Could Reynolds be ahead in the traditionally Democratic northeast part of the state, where she’s never lived?

The final result shows the governor did better here than she should have. Hubbell came out of the IA-01 counties with only 4,207 more votes than Reynolds (a 1.3 percent margin). In contrast, he ran about 14,000 more votes (3.9 percent) ahead of Reynolds in the sixteen counties that make up IA-03.

One would expect Hubbell to do particularly well in Polk County, where he has spent most of his life. But he should have been able to build a larger lead in IA-01. Remember, those counties collectively contained about 23,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Matching Finkenauer’s results (she outpolled Blum by 16,900) would have gone a long way toward making up Hubbell’s statewide deficit of about 36,000 votes in the governor’s race.

Many factors could explain why Finkenauer did significantly better than Hubbell in IA-01, including:

  • As a Dubuque native from a working-class family, she was a better fit for the district than a wealthy business leader from Des Moines.
  • She was able to focus all of her time and campaign resources on those 20 counties, while Hubbell had to cover the whole state.
  • She campaigned relentlessly for a year and a half and had a better field operation, with a big assist from organized labor.
  • She substantially out-raised and out-spent her opponent, and her campaign benefited from more spending by outside groups.
  • She faced a weaker incumbent. Blum’s constituent service was poor, he’s far less personable than Reynolds, and his shady business practices prompted an ethics investigation.
  • Hubbell highlighted Planned Parenthood in a number of his commercials and direct mail pieces. Dubuque and several other counties in IA-01 have large Catholic populations, which could partly explain why Hubbell did worse there than past Democratic nominees for governor. Finkenauer is strongly pro-choice as well, but she didn’t make reproductive rights a central issue in her stump speeches or advertising.
  • Any comments about the results in IA-01 are welcome in this thread.

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