Iowa Poll shows presidential and congressional races tightening

President Donald Trump speaking Jan. 30 at Drake University’s Knapp Center in Des Moines. Trump discussed the new USMCA trade agreement and hit out at his potential Democratic rivals.

Michael Craighton

The latest Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll was released this week, showing Iowa as an increasingly competitive state in the 2020 election.

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden registered 47 percent support in the state, a tightening of the race from other recent polls. The Iowa Poll also showed a very tight Senate race and close results from each of Iowa’s four congressional districts. 

Iowa looks poised to regain its former status as a swing state in 2020, a reversal of a trend that began with the 2016 presidential election when Trump won the state by nearly 10 percent and continued as Republicans expanded their majority in the state Senate in 2018.

“It has a very reddish coloration to it right now, after the 2016 election results,” said Mack Shelley, chair of the political science department and a professor of statistics. “Trump won the state by about 9.5 percentage points […] that’s a little bit higher margin than he carried Texas. That’s saying something. Because Obama carried Iowa twice in 2008 and 2012.”

A number of factors have likely contributed to the shift away from Trump this election, Shelley said, particularly those relating to the state’s agricultural economy and its significance in the state’s rural areas.

“About 20 percent of people in the United States live in rural areas […] Iowa is 60 percent urban, 40 percent rural,” Shelley said. “So Iowa is twice as rural as the country as a whole.”

Agricultural economic issues are also a significant factor for rural voters. The state’s ethanol industry has been impacted by increased renewable fuel waivers issued to oil companies, and the export market for Iowa crops has been impacted by trade wars with China and Europe, Shelley said. 

“Trump has been trying to follow what some call a ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ approach, where you try to hurt other countries more than your country,” Shelley said. “It’s kind of like a dual hit to corn growers.” 

Trump’s natural constituency, which helped lead to his victory in 2016, is drawn heavily from rural voters. Shelley said that while many farmers’ frustration with the administration’s policies and their effects on their pocketbooks are certainly contributing to the tighter race this election, its effect isn’t likely to be strong enough alone to tip the balance in favor of Biden. 

“When all the votes are tallied in Iowa, it’s going to be relatively close,” Shelley said. “I’m assuming Trump is going to come out ahead by one or two percentage points [in Iowa].”  

Shelley also said the outcome will largely hinge on each party’s turnout and on the votes of registered independents, who make up a decreasing proportion of Iowa’s electorate.

The results of the poll came as a welcome development to Democrats in Iowa as well.

“Polls are just a snapshot in time, and we still have 40 days until the election,” said Jeremy Busch, a spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic Party. “But in the big picture, we’re seeing positive signs across the board. Iowa is part of the path to take back the White House, Senate and House of Representatives.”

Busch pointed to similar issues drawing 2016 Trump voters away from Trump’s message in 2020, including Sen. Joni Ernst’s support for the president’s Environmental Protection Agency director, who has issued renewable energy waivers to big fossil fuel companies, undercutting Iowa’s ethanol industry.

The push for rural voters’ loyalty can be seen in Democratic campaign messaging, Shelley said. In particular, he pointed out Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic nominee running for the U.S. Senate, who uses her ancestral farm in many campaign ads.

“The other Democratic congressional candidates are doing things that are kind of similar,” Shelley said.

Busch also pointed to the Democratic Party’s campaign messaging in the state. 

“We’re running a positive vision campaign,” Busch said. “Health care, pandemic relief, supporting Iowa farm communities…every person whether in Ames or Mingo should have those opportunities.”

Officials from the Republican Party declined to comment on the results of the Iowa Poll.

Despite the presidential contest being close in Iowa, its impact on the national outcome is likely to be negligible. An election forecast created by FiveThirtyEight, a political analysis company, shows several states that have a larger population than Iowa and generally are considered to be closer races, including Ohio, Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania, all of which are more likely to tip the election.

“We’re talking six electoral votes out of 538, just a smidgen over one percent,” Shelley said. “Even relatively close presidential elections, a swing of six electoral votes [changing the outcome] is very unlikely, barring something bizarre happening.”

What the poll also shows, and what might prove the bigger impact of Iowa on the national political landscape, are very tight contests for both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Currently, each of those races show only a five to seven point spread between each party’s candidate, which is within the poll’s margin of error.

“A point swing toward Trump could carry with it an extra Republican member of the House,” Shelley said.

Unexpectedly close is the race in Iowa’s 4th District, which includes Ames. The 4th District was formerly represented by Republican Steve King, who frequently made national headlines for his inflammatory remarks, particularly on the subject of immigration. King lost his primary bid earlier this summer to state Sen. Randy Feenstra. The Iowa Poll shows Feenstra leading Democratic nominee J.D. Scholten by only five percentage points.

“There is a fairly rapidly growing Hispanic population in the 4th District,” Shelley said. “It changes the literal complexion of the district, and the political complexion as well.”

Democrats also credit the closeness of the race to Scholten’s campaign style, as well as Feenstra’s similarity to King’s policies. 

“Every single day he’s on the ground going to every town big and small,” Busch said. “Randy Feenstra — yes, he’s no Steve King, but he’s taken up every mantle King has owned.”

Shelley agreed with the characterization, saying Feenstra is saying much of the same things King would have, minus the characteristic rhetoric.

Shelley emphasized that while polls are good indicators of public attitudes for candidates, they can still have difficulty picking up on late-breaking trends or anticipate the results of major events. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one such event that, while already impacting the election, is not yet reflected in most polls.

In an election year characterized by protests, natural disasters and a pandemic, the news cycle moves too quickly to expect every event to be reflected quickly in polling results.

“We live in interesting times,” Shelley said. “It’s hard to tell what comes next. Except for a plague of locusts, which seems almost guaranteed. It’s kind of hard to tell what else might happen between now and election day.”