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Flying under the radar?

By Christopher W. Larimer, University of Northern Iowa Professor of Political Science.

As strange as it might seem to voters in our state, Iowa seems to be flying under the radar. When it comes to states considered “swing” or “battleground” for the 2020 presidential election, few analysts are including Iowa among this select group.

Yes, Iowa swung far to the right in 2016, with Republican Donald Trump winning by 9.3 percentage points. But remember, going into the election, Iowa was still considered a swing state by most analysts. Importantly, this classification remained even after Iowa swung hard to the left in 2008, with Obama winning by 9.5 points, and again in 2012 (Obama won by 5.8 points).

Looking at party registration in the state, there is evidence that the ground may be shifting again. Consider the following:

  • In May of 2007, Democrats held a 1.14-point advantage over Republicans among active registered voters. By May of 2008, that had increased to 4.32 points.
  • In May of 2015, Republicans had a party registration advantage over Democrats of 1.25 points. By May of 2016, that had increased to 1.47 points.
  • In May of 2019, Republicans had a 1.26-point registration advantage over Democrats. In May of 2020, that had flipped to a .47-point advantage for Democrats.

While the shifts in 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 are considerably smaller than the 60,000-voter shift observed in 2007-2008, they nonetheless suggest a movement within the electorate. Even if Iowa goes for Trump in 2020 but does so by a narrow margin of 1-2 percentage points, that would still be evidence of a “swing” from 2016 and reaffirm the state’s pivotal role in presidential politics.

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