Lessons of 2020: Iowa Catholics stuck with Trump

Third in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2020 state and federal elections.

White non-Hispanic Catholics supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of exit polls and subsequent survey of validated voters.

Preliminary exit poll data suggests that Joe Biden improved his standing with those voters, losing white Catholics by 57 percent to 42 percent, compared to Clinton’s 64 percent to 31 percent deficit. That’s consistent with some polls taken during the campaign, which showed Biden gaining support among white Catholics–not surprising, since the Democratic nominee frequently referred to his Catholic faith and upbringing in public appearances.

I expected Biden to improve substantially on Clinton’s performance in Iowa’s most heavily Catholic counties, where “Kennedy Democrats” were once a solid voting bloc. But that didn’t happen.

On the contrary, Trump increased his raw vote totals and share of the vote in those counties, as he did in many parts of the state.

The Association of Religion Data Archives maintains county reports of U.S. congregational membership. Using that resource, I identified the six Iowa counties where Catholics are by far the largest group of “congregational adherents,” defined as “full members, their children, and others who regularly attend services.” In five of those counties, most identified church-goers were Catholics; in Howard County, Catholics comprised nearly a majority.

Although the information dates to 2010, it’s unlikely that the dominant religion has changed in any of these areas. Families usually maintain the same religious identity for generations. In many counties, the largest religious group reflects the European country of origin for immigrants who settled in that part of Iowa during the 19th century.

Dubuque County

49,917 Catholics (belonging to 29 congregations) out of 64,036 adherents county-wide

Most Iowa politics watchers were shocked when Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Dubuque County since 1956. No one factor explained how he outpolled Clinton by 23,460 votes to 22,850 (46.7 percent to 45.5 percent).

Turnout was substantially higher this year, and fewer voters backed third-party candidates. Biden improved on Clinton’s support and vote share, gaining 25,655 votes (47.6 percent). But Trump increased his base by a little more: 27,214 votes (50.5 percent).

Note: Dubuque County is slightly more diverse than the other counties discussed in this post. Even so, U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019 indicates 90.2 percent of county residents are white and not Latino.

Carroll County

11,943 Catholics (fourteen congregations) out of 18,335 adherents

Like Dubuque, Carroll was once so reliably Democratic that it was among the six counties John F. Kennedy carried in the 1960 presidential election.

But unlike Dubuque, voters in Carroll began trending toward Republicans decades ago. The last Democrat to represent this area in the Iowa House retired in 2000. CORRECTION: Democrat Dan Muhlbauer was elected to the state House in 2010 (after facing an unusually weak Republican candidate) and served two terms before losing his 2014 re-election bid.

So it wasn’t surprising that Trump doubled Clinton’s votes in 2016: 6,638 to 3,309 (62.1 percent to 31.0 percent). That result aligned with the Pew Research Center’s estimate for white Catholic preferences nationally.

I didn’t anticipate that Biden would flip this county, but I did expect to see some movement toward a Democratic nominee who is a practicing Catholic. Wrong.

Unofficial results show Trump gained 7,720 votes (68.3 percent), surpassing his 2016 total by more than 1,000. Meanwhile, just 3,444 county residents voted for Biden, barely more than Clinton managed. Due to this year’s higher turnout, Biden’s vote share was even lower than Clinton’s (30.5 percent). Douglas Burns reported for the Carroll Times Herald last week that Trump “hit the 80 percent support threshold in some southern reaches of the county.”

Approximately 94.3 percent of Carroll County residents are white and not Latino.

Delaware County

7,494 Catholics (nine congregations) out of 12,453 adherents

This traditionally Republican county’s experience matches Carroll’s. Trump carried Delaware by 5,694 votes to 2,957 for Clinton (61.0 percent to 31.7 percent). Unofficial results show the president gained nearly a thousand more supporters in the county for a total of 6,666 votes (66.6 percent)–that’s not a typo. Biden won 3,157 votes–just 200 more than Clinton–and didn’t improve on her vote share (31.6 percent), due to the higher 2020 turnout.

An estimated 96.3 percent of Delaware residents are white and not Latino.

Jackson County

6,843 Catholics (nine congregations) out of 11,866 adherents

This Mississippi River county swung hard from a 17-point edge for Barack Obama in 2012 to an even more lopsided advantage for Trump four years ago: 5,824 votes to 3,837 (55.4 percent to 36.5 percent).

Third-party voting declined this year, and the president picked up almost all the slack, winning Jackson by 6,940 votes to 4,029 for Biden (62.3 percent to 36.2 percent).

Related: Jackson County is the population center of Iowa House district 58, which Republican Steve Bradley flipped last week by a little more than 1,200 votes. But it would be more accurate to say that Democrats lost this House seat in 2010, when party-switcher Brian Moore scored an upset win over State Representative Tom Schueller. Moore represented the district for three terms and was succeeded by another Republican, Andy McKean, in 2016. McKean joined the Democratic caucus in 2019 and was seeking re-election as a Democrat for the first time.

The Census Bureau has estimated that 95.2 percent of Jackson County residents are white and not Latino.

Kossuth County

6,733 Catholics (seven congregations) out of 13,898 adherents

This county has long supported Republicans for president. Even so, Trump’s 5,653 to 2,543 margin (64.7 percent to 29.1 percent) was substantially larger than Mitt Romney’s advantage over Obama in 2012. Was Clinton especially disliked here?

Apparently not, since Biden barely improved on Clinton’s raw vote and vote share, losing Kossuth to Trump by 6,244 votes to 2,681 (69.1 percent to 29.7 percent).

Kossuth’s population is 93.9 percent white and not Latino.

Howard County

3,930 Catholics (five congregations) out of 7,950 adherents

Howard County was part of the small group that voted for JFK in 1960, but it’s better known as the county showing the nation’s largest swing from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Howard was the fifth-whitest county in the U.S. to vote to re-elect Obama, and it was a landslide: 2,768 votes to 1,795 (59.3 percent to 38.5 percent).

Trump reversed the 20-point margin, carrying the county by 2,611 votes to 1,677 (56.3 percent to 36.1 percent) in 2016.

The president was even more dominant this year, winning Howard by 3,126 votes to 1,772 for Biden (63.1 percent to 35.8 percent).

About 96.1 percent of Howard County residents are white and not Latino.


For Democrats to compete statewide in Iowa, they need to run up the score in large counties like Dubuque and keep Republican margins down in smaller counties. With national polling suggesting white Catholics had moved noticeably toward Biden, I anticipated that the Democratic nominee had potential to regain some ground in Iowa’s most Catholic areas.

Instead, Biden did just as poorly as Clinton or worse.

I don’t have a good hypothesis on why white Catholics would gravitate a bit toward Biden in Rust Belt states but not in Iowa. If you have a plausible explanation, please let me know.

The bottom line for me: if this Democrat couldn’t move the needle in the most Catholic counties, I’m even more convinced that Iowa currently looks more like a red state than a swing state.

Top image: Facade of the historic St. Donatus Catholic Church in Jackson County. Photo by “Iowa40z” taken on October 29, 2020 and available via Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin