Iowa Democratic primary voters more urban in 2022

Democrats living in Iowa’s ten most populous counties delivered more than two-thirds of the votes in the June 7 primary election, a larger share than in other recent primaries, according to Bleeding Heartland’s analysis of initial election results.

Hotly contested races for legislative or county offices pushed turnout particularly high in Iowa’s three largest Democratic vote-producing counties, relative to the state as a whole.

The share of the primary votes cast in Iowa’s mid-sized counties dipped slightly, compared to the previous three Democratic primaries, reflecting less competition for down-ballot offices in those communities.


The Iowa Secretary of State’s office tabulated 156,589 votes cast in last week’s Democratic primary election. That level was 44 percent below the record-breaking turnout of 281,544 for the 2020 Democratic primary, when the secretary of state had sent every registered voter an absentee ballot request form. It was also 13 percent lower than the number of Democrats who participated in Iowa’s 2018 primary, when several candidates for governor spent heavily to persuade voters and mobilize supporters.

The drop in participation wasn’t uniform across the state. It was less pronounced in counties where multiple candidates were fighting to become the Democratic nominee for local or state offices. Using figures posted on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, I updated the chart published here with unofficial numbers from the ten counties that deliver the greatest number of Democratic votes.

Note that while the overall population of Scott County (Quad Cities area) exceeds that of Johnson County (Iowa City area), far more Johnson County residents vote in Iowa Democratic primaries.

Votes cast in recent Democratic primaries (large counties)

County2016 (Senate)2018 (Governor)2020 (Senate)2022 (Senate)
Black Hawk3,7126,75411,9016,815
large county total62,148119,079176,696106,443
statewide total101,991182,736282,794156,784
large county share of vote60.9%65.2%62.5%67.9%
2022 numbers drawn from unofficial returns; other data from official canvass

The ten largest counties accounted for nearly 68 percent of Democratic votes cast in the most recent election.

Polk County had four competitive Iowa House primaries, one Iowa Senate primary, and multi-candidate races for county attorney and county treasurer, which had not happened for decades. The county containing most of the Des Moines metro area accounted for about 20 percent of the statewide primary votes cast in 2016 and 2020, but 24.2 percent of this year’s primary vote. In the 2018 primary, featuring several candidates for governor who lived in Des Moines, Polk County residents cast 23.6 percent of the statewide Democratic vote.

Linn County Democrats cast a little more than 10 percent of the statewide primary votes this year, thanks to hard-fought races for two open Iowa Senate seats, plus a three-way primary for a supervisor position in the county containing the Cedar Rapids metro.

Johnson County’s turnout was particularly strong, due to two open Iowa House seats, one Iowa Senate seat, and a three-way primary for two at-large county supervisor seats. Democrats in the “People’s Republic” cast about 9.7 percent of all primary votes, up from 8.0 percent in 2016, 9.4 percent in 2018, and 8.7 percent in 2020.

Incidentally, Mike Franken carried eight of Iowa’s ten largest counties in the U.S. Senate primary. Abby Finkenauer carried Scott, where her campaign was outspending Franken’s on television, and Pottawattamie (Council Bluffs), where neither candidate bought tv time.


I also updated a table showing Democratic votes cast in sixteen medium-sized counties. Most of those counties have been trending red over the past decade, and Democrats now hold few Iowa House or Senate seats covering these areas.

As a result, Democratic candidate recruitment has suffered. Most counties listed in this table had no contested Democratic primaries for legislative seats. In some cases, no Democrat filed for various county offices.

The upshot was that a little less than 15 percent of the statewide primary vote came from the mid-sized counties, many of which were once Democratic strongholds.

Votes cast in recent Democratic primaries (mid-sized counties)

County2016 (Senate)2018 (Governor)2020 (Senate)2022 (Senate)
Warren (Indianola)1,4883,4154,8912,742
Clinton (Clinton)7141,6104,0961,609
Des Moines (Burlington)8811,9773,8741,431
Cerro Gordo (Mason City)8861,6123,6001,950
Jasper (Newton)2,6012,3353,2321,913
Muscatine (Muscatine)1,2061,3472,998984
Jackson (Maquoketa)8681,0892,943849
Lee (Keokuk)2,2271,8712,8761,068
Webster (Fort Dodge)1,0381,6452,8141,188
Marshall (Marshalltown)1,1221,8222,7301,399
Boone (Boone)6641,5972,5131,246
Winneshiek (Decorah)1,1982,4182,3651,421
Wapello (Ottumwa)1,8321,1922,3561,379
Marion (Pella/Knoxville)6251,3952,3131,177
Bremer (Waverly)9621,2382,0551,189
Jefferson (Fairfield)8312,0942,0111,427
mid-sized county total19,14328,65747,66722,972
statewide total101,991182,736282,794156,784
mid-sized county share of vote18.8%15.7%16.9%14.7%
2022 numbers drawn from unofficial returns; other data from official canvass

Adding the Democratic turnout from large and mid-sized counties together, residents of 26 Iowa counties accounted for about 82.5 percent of votes cast in last week’s election. Only 17.5 percent of the 2022 Democratic primary voters are living in the state’s other 73 counties.

When the Iowa Secretary of State’s office publishes the statewide statistical report on the June 7 election later this summer, Bleeding Heartland will review the age and gender breakdown of this year’s Democratic primary voters.

Top image: Johnson County residents vote early at the Coralville Public Library on June 4, 2022. Photo originally published on the Johnson County auditor’s Facebook page.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • Thanks for these quick spreadsheets

    There is nothing surprising about turnout decreasing over 2018, as the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on how we live, and that includes politics. Likewise, I don’t see how we can view Pate’s mailing an absentee ballot request in 2020 as anything but a one-off created by special circumstances of the pandemic. Now if Iowa were to totally convert to vote by mail like other states, automatically register voters who got a driver’s license and mail everyone a ballot request form, that would be a game changer.

    It is also unsurprising that these 26 counties cast 82.5 percent of votes in the primary. I can see why we want to say Johnson County turnout was strong, but the numbers show it was less than 2018. While politically engaged folks were enraptured by replacing Bolkcom, Mascher and Bohannan, Joe/Jane voter, not so much. I guess I understand the narrative you present regarding Johnson County, yet don’t agree with it.

    Based on these numbers, it’s also no surprise why political organizers focus on locations where there are more people: that’s where there are enough votes to win. I don’t envision a scenario where any kind of “rural” vote-getting that will make a difference. Even the much praised Eastside Dems in Iowa City refused to do the rural work needed in a campaign on which I worked and asked them for help. Groups like them serve a singular purpose of getting out Democratic votes in high density locations. They rely on close proximity of housing to use their tactics. That is needed, yet we’ll never regain control of the legislature if that’s Democratic focus.

    This analysis is bad news for Iowa Democrats. We need to get our MoJo back and didn’t in the primary.

    On to November!

    • Dems are caught in a spiral

      Nominating candidates who get rolled by aggressive Republicans. People want candidates who are fighters for their priorities, not hand holding.