The 2016 elections were so devastating for Iowa Democrats that I thought Iowa had probably relinquished swing-state status and would not have a targeted U.S. Senate race in 2020.
However, Senator Joni Ernst's approval numbers have been sliding for some time. The first two polls published following last week's primary election show Democratic Senate nominee Theresa Greenfield slightly leading Ernst.
The same surveys point to a highly competitive race between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden for Iowa's six electoral votes.
GREENFIELD LEADS WITHIN MARGIN OF ERROR
Public Policy Polling surveyed 963 Iowa voters on June 3 and 4 and found that 45 percent of respondents would support Greenfield for Senate, 43 percent were for Ernst, and 12 percent were unsure. Ernst's approval rating (38 percent approve/45 percent disapprove) matched her favorability ratings (38 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the senator, 45 percent had an unfavorable one).
I didn't write up this poll because I am generally cautious about surveys commissioned by campaigns or their supporters. EMILY's List was an early endorser of Greenfield, and the group's political arm Women Vote! spent nearly a million dollars on her behalf before the primary. That said, PPP's sample in the poll for EMILY's List didn't appear skewed (35 percent of respondents were Republicans, 35 percent were Democrats, and 30 percent were no-party voters), and the results were not far off the same firm's previous Iowa survey, released in early May.
A second poll has now offered a similar view of the IA-Sen race. Civiqs surveyed 865 registered voters from June 6 to June 8 and found 48 percent would vote for Greenfield if the election were today, while 45 percent would support Ernst. That lead is within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent. Ernst's favorability is well underwater: 39 percent favorable, 52 percent unfavorable, the rest unsure.
Republicans may be inclined to dismiss the Civiqs poll, because it was commissioned by the progressive website Daily Kos. They shouldn't. The sample was comprised of 32 percent Democrats, 36 percent Republicans, and 32 percent independents. In addition, 45 percent of respondents said they voted for Governor Kim Reynolds in 2018, while 42 percent voted for Democratic opponent Fred Hubbell.
BOTH SIDES TRYING TO DEFINE THE CHALLENGER
Recent polling confirms that the Democratic nominee is much less well known than Ernst. That's expected, because the senator has traveled widely around Iowa since 2013 and frequently receives local media coverage.
About 36 percent of PPP's respondents had a favorable opinion of Greenfield, 23 percent unfavorable, and 41 percent unsure. Civiqs found 39 percent viewed Greenfield favorably, 31 percent had an unfavorable opinion, and 30 percent were unsure.
The main super-PAC aligned with Senate Democrats spent about $7 million backing Greenfield before the primary, mostly on positive television commercials, but there is still potential for supporters and detractors to define the Democratic nominee with voters who don't closely follow politics.
Greenfield's campaign launched its first general election television commercial on June 5. The biographical spot emphasizes the candidate's commitment to hard work, without mentioning the incumbent.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an attack ad on June 9, which is airing in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Sioux City, and Omaha markets.
Like most negative ads aired by both parties in recent Congressional races, the spot has a cookie-cutter feel. I don't see it moving the needle much.
IOWA NOT SAFE FOR TRUMP IN NOVEMBER
Although Trump carried Iowa by about 9.3 points--a larger winning margin than he enjoyed in Texas---his vote share here in November 2016 was only about 50.6 percent. That suggests even a small decline in support for the president could put Iowa in play, assuming third-party candidates attract a smaller share of the vote this year.
Republicans should not be over-confident about Iowa, if recent polling is any guide.
PPP found 48 percent of respondents approved of Trump's job performance, while 49 percent disapproved. The president's favorable rating was clearly in negative territory: 45 percent favorable/52 percent unfavorable. And Trump would get the votes of 48 percent of respondents, while Biden would receive 47 percent.
Civiqs found Trump and Biden tied with 46 percent support, with 7 percent inclined to back someone else for president and only 1 percent unsure.
Biden outperforms his favorability numbers in both polls. PPP found 37 percent viewed the Democratic nominee favorably, about 51 percent unfavorably. Among Civiqs respondents who expressed an unfavorable view of both leading presidential candidates, 38 percent would vote for Biden and just 6 percent for Trump.
Trump won more support in 2016 from voters who disliked both major-party presidential nominees. A number of pollsters have found this year that Biden has the advantage among that group.
Some political observers see the presidential race in Iowa as insignificant, since our state is unlikely to be decisive. That is to say, if Biden carries this state, he probably will have won far more than the 270 electoral votes he needs.
Nevertheless, a loss for Trump in Iowa would be significant and could spell disaster for down-ballot Republican candidates, especially in state legislative districts that swung heavily to the GOP in 2016. That applies to many of the Iowa House and Senate seats that could be battlegrounds this fall.
Bleeding Heartland will soon publish new overviews of the state legislative races, probably after lawmakers wrap up the 2020 session.
I've seen the anti-Greenfield ads, mostly on YouTube, and I'm finding them to be quite ironic - they paint her as a "failed business person" who "declared bankruptcy" and left "millions in unpaid bills". Kinda like, oh, I don't know, the president? Does the GOP really want to go there?
Greenfield needs to respond
I've seen the "failed business person" ads on TV news shows. And while it's only June, I hope to see some kind of response ad soon, and/or an ad that tells a different story. Letting Republicans define and tell the story of Greenfield's business record seems like an extremely bad idea.