Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Chris Larimer, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, and Andrew Green, professor of political science at Central College, discuss the 2020 election.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Clay Masters, political reporter and Morning Edition host at Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Only 40 days until Election Day and less than 10 days away from a potentially record early vote in Iowa. We preview Iowa Campaign 2020 with Northern Iowa's Chris Larimer and Andrew Green of Central College on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 25 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: A fresh batch of Iowa polling rolled out this week from national outlets and the Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll. With less than 10 days until the start of early voting, Iowa is a toss-up state for the presidency, U.S. Senate and Congress. But what can we draw from these recent trends and from Iowa political history? We're joined by Chris Larimer, Political Science Professor at the University of Northern Iowa and author of the book, Gubernatorial Stability in Iowa. And by Central College Political Science Professor Andrew Green, author of the book, From the Iowa Caucuses to the White House: Understanding Donald Trump's 2016 Electoral Victory in Iowa.

Yepsen: Gentlemen, welcome to the show. Good to have you with us. Thanks for making the journey here.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Joining us across the table are Clay Masters, Politics Reporter and Host of Morning Edition on Iowa Public Radio and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Larimer, let's begin with you and the polls that David, just mentioned. Can we believe that this really is a toss-up?

Larimer: Well, I would argue, and Donna Hoffman, my colleague at UNI, we have argued since 2016 that Iowa is still very much a battleground state, still very much a swing state just because of the structural dynamics of the state, the political geography of the state. We would argue that the caucus system, the way the precincts work, the political geography in terms of the rural-urban divide very much makes Iowa a competitive state. Outside of having a candidate that is sort of overly embraced, we were talking about this the other day, someone like a Barack Obama or you think of Governors, Bob Ray, Iowa can be very, very competitive and we've seen that in terms of the party registration, how close that is generally between democrats, republicans and those registered as no party. So for us it's not particularly surprising that we're at that point where it's a swing state. For us it's more that the polls finally caught up to where we thought it was.

Henderson: Mr. Green, you wrote the book on 2016 and the Trump effect here. How do you compare and contrast 2016 and 2020?

Green: Well, I look at this time four years ago Iowa still looked like it was going to be pretty competitive in the presidential, the poll data had then candidate Trump with a slight lead here in the state, there were a couple of polls that were essentially tied and then throughout the remainder of the campaign President Trump, now President Trump was able to pull away and won the state by 9 points. I think if you look at the short-term candidate dynamics, the short-term campaign effects that we've seen and the effect of other events that have occurred like the coronavirus and the economic downturn that has occurred as a result of it, there are these short-term forces that are snapping Iowa back into that competitive mold.

Masters: A surprise a week ago from today when we're taping this was the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We've seen that the President is moving forward with a nominee, we've seen that the Senate is going to move forward with the nomination process. As far as how this plays out in the election here in Iowa, who gains from this politically in this presidential race?

Larimer: Well, I think one thing it does is sort of accelerates the partisan politics we've seen for the last several year. It really increases the polarization. I don't know that anybody particularly gains. The President might in a sense that it's another way to mobilize his base. But for someone like Senator Ernst who is going to potentially have to take a vote on this, that puts her in somewhat of a precarious position because if the polls are right that it is so tight for her, that it's within the margin of error, that makes her vote more significant for her than for others.

Masters: Because back to those polls, Senator Joni Ernst has shown to be in a very competitive race here against the democrat Theresa Greenfield and I think we're just going to keep seeing this issue playing out in the Senate race moving towards November as well.

Green: I think that's true. I agree with Chris that it probably is more consequential for Senator Ernst because she is going to have to cast that vote and it looks more and more likely that the vote is going to be held prior to the November election. If it impacts the presidential I think it's going to be at the margins. I think the voters that are going to be thrilled with a very conservative nominee replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg are voters that are more than likely inclined to support the President already. And so while it may cement the vote choice of some folks at the margins, I just don't see it having a huge effect in the presidential here in Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Green, if I could, there are people who say I don't believe the polls anymore because the 2016 polls were so off and there were people who were arguing there were "shy" Trump voters, they wouldn't tell pollsters that they were supporting Donald Trump. Is that a thing in 2020?

Green: I'm not sure that I necessarily agree that the polls were all that far off here in Iowa in 2016. If you looked at the last batch of polls that were released in the week before the election, I think it was the Des Moines Register Iowa Poll that had President Trump with a 7 point lead going into Election Day and then he ends up winning the state by 9 points. There probably are some folks that are hanging up on pollsters when they call that are Trump supporters that are being missed in the polls. But I'm not sure there are all that many of them that that would lead to the polls being skewed in one direction or the other.

Henderson: Mr. Larimer, how do you address people when they say, I just don't believe the polls anymore?

Larimer: Well, as a political scientists I would try to defend us a little bit in the sense that a lot of the polls that we use are the forecasting models and there are generally 8 to 10 of them that we look to early on in an election year and I think, Andrew can correct me, but I think 7 out of those 10 polls, and they're predicting the two party vote, which is different than percent two party vote, than the Electoral College. I think 7 or 8 out of 10 are within a percentage point or two of the final outcome. So the polls actually did quite well, it was just there weren't enough state level polls to really get a good sense of how the Electoral College was going to play out.

Yepsen: Professor Green, go back to Senator Ernst. Why is this such a tough vote for her? There's an old saying in politics, you dance with the one that brung you. And she was elected in 2014 by the Tea Party republicans, conservatives. Judges, that is the Holy Grail for them, that's why they get involved in politics. She has no choice but to vote with the party on this doesn't she?

Green: Yeah, I think you're right. I'm not sure if ideologically the vote is tough for her but electorally I think the vote is tough for her because she is in this neck and neck race with Theresa Greenfield. And worrying about swing voters around the state that may be turned off by this particular process where the President is immediately making an appointment and they're going to expedite the confirmation process and hopefully get a vote in the next month could look very, swing voters here in Iowa could look very negatively upon that.

Yepsen: Chris Larimer, are there really that many swing voters? People at the polls seem to indicate that most people made up their minds and are pretty firm about it.

Larimer: Yeah, it's hard to get a good sense of how many swing voters or persuadable voters are out there. Research that continues to come out shows that it's pretty hard to persuade voters whether it's get out the vote techniques or campaign ads. And what we've seen in the polls this cycle are there are fewer and fewer "undecided" voters. So I thin for Senator Ernst that's a challenge. But the other challenge for her is this is her first re-election bid ni a presidential year and typically we see 400,000, 450,000 more voters in a presidential election year in Iowa and so it's a different electorate for her. And so if there are swing voters out there it at least may be folks who didn't vote in 2014.

Yepsen: In addition to this issue of who is motivated by the Ginsburg nomination issue, Chris Larimer, why is there such a gender gap in these polls, both in the race for President and in the Senate race? Women voters by double digits are breaking for the democrats, for Joe Biden and for Theresa Greenfield. Why is that?

Larimer: I think it's caught up in the narrative around the President. I think President Trump has not done well with women voters. We've seen that throughout this election cycle going back to 2016. And I think voters, anybody who associates a candidate with the President you see that gender gap transfer down the ballot.

Yepsen: What is your take on the gender gap and why it's there? As I recall Senator Ernst didn't carry women voters in 2014. Bruce Braley narrowly got them. So what's going on here?

Green: I think the race is very nationalized. I agree with Chris, I think it's wrapped up in the narrative around the President and it mirrors what we're seeing with women voters all over the country, that we're starting to see these shifts away from the Republican Party amongst many women and it's filtering its way down to down ballot races across the country and here in Iowa.

Henderson: We're going to have some presidential debates this year, at least we think we are. Mr. Larimer, is this appointment television? Are people's minds going to be changed by what happens on the debate stage?

Larimer: Their minds may be changed to the extent that they're going to decide to show up in the polls. I don't know that this is going to persuade anybody to, if they were leaning toward Biden to all of a sudden go for Trump and vice versa. So I think it's more of a mobilization conversation and more of a mobilization event for voters because there is kind of that old saying within political science about do debates really matter because they're not really pushing people one way or the other because in a lot of cases they have made up their mind and we see that more this election cycle. So I think it's more for the candidates as a way to mobilize their base to turn out in November.

Henderson: Mr. Green?

Green: I would agree. And in a race that is within the margin of error right now, the more voters that are friendly to your team or to your side showing up on Election Day is better for your bottom line. And so if the two candidates can show up for that debate next week and then the subsequent debates that follow and persuade voters to show up on Election Day or to participate in early voting I think that is good for their sides.

Henderson: In 2016 in Iowa we saw 1.3% of voters who cast a ballot in the presidential race write somebody's name in. Jill Stein did well here. What about the crop of third party candidates? Do they have any appeal to Iowa voters this time around who haven't picked a side yet?

Green: I'm not sure that they do. At least they aren't getting an awful lot of time in the public sphere up to this point. I think if we look back to 2016 there was still a group of what you would call establishment republicans that were very leery of supporting Donald Trump in the general and maybe looking for a third party candidate, in that case it might have been Gary Johnson running as a libertarian. And Gary Johnson was much more widely known going into 2016 than some of the third party nominees that are running in this cycle are. And so I think from a name recognition perspective a lot of these folks just suffer from low levels of name recognition.

Henderson: Mr. Larimer, what impact will Kanye West have on the Iowa electorate? Iowa is one of the few states in which he's qualified for the ballot.

Larimer: Yeah, I think that is just hard to know. I don't know if I have a good answer for that one. I think it's hard to know because folks are so polarized, going back to the polls that have come out this last week, what we see in those polls is just the intense polarization, particularly those who are supporting Biden I think it's pretty much split between they're supporting Joe Biden because they're for Joe Biden versus they're supporting Biden because they're against the President. So if you're talking about that polarized of an electorate I'm not sure what kind of an effect Kanye West would have on this election.

Masters: After the fiasco that was the Iowa Caucuses in 2020, yeah that was this year back in February, a lot of national political watchers kind of wrote Iowa off, went big for Donald Trump in 2016. Now there's a lot of attention back on Iowa with the Senate race, with these four congressional races that at least three of them of the four are looking pretty competitive. Chris Larimer, you kind of brought up at the outset of this conversation the fact that Iowa is still a swing state, but you kind of see a pinkish hue sometimes on some of these maps. What makes this state still a swing state in your eyes?

Larimer: Well, like I said, I think it's part the rural-urban divide that we see across the state where you have half of the electorate in about 10 or 11 counties, that the strong party organization we see in the state related to the Caucuses within counties, within precincts and there's a strong element of that no party registration in Iowa. Not all those no party voters are necessarily truly independent. But I think there is that mindset there as far as what makes Iowa a swing state. And I think part of the reason the national media overlooked Iowa after 2016 is not only did Trump win the state by 9 points but republicans won unified control of state government. And so I think there was the perception that Iowa has just shifted completely to a red state when in fact a lot of these other factors really hadn't changed.

Masters: The polls that are coming out right now, it's looking more like 2000, 2004 levels in the presidential race in Iowa when it was just in the thousands that the presidential candidates came in from winning.

Green: Chris and I were at a conference together in March 2017 where we had this conversation about whether Iowa would continue to be a swing state and it has been a topic among Iowa political scientists and politicos ever since. I agree with Chris and with his colleague Donna that until we start to see election after election after election where republicans are dominating the state I think it's safe to say that Iowa will remain competitive into the future.

Yepsen: This toss-up situation filters on down the ballot. We've talked about the race for President and the race for the Senate being within margins for error. All four of these congressional districts in the state have interesting races for Congress. I'd like to get your take on them. Andrew Green, first district, Ashley Hinson and Abby Finkenauer. What is your take? How does that race feel to you? Who do you think is ahead in that?

Green: If you look at the literature on congressional elections you have to give the incumbent a slight edge just going in through the sheer fact that Congresswoman Finkenauer is the incumbent in the race. It's going to be an awfully close race where Ashley Hinson is going to have to win back some of the voters that were lost in the previous cycle that may have voted for Rod Blum and for Donald Trump in the previous cycle.

Yepsen: Northern Iowa, what is your take on that race?

Larimer: I agree with Andrew, it's extraordinarily competitive. It's, again, that rural-urban divide really sticks out. You have 17 counties that are pretty rural and then you have 3 that are urban and the last several election cycles it has been ranked among the top 10 most competitive in the country. And so I think it's going to be very competitive. Historically that has been a district, at least the last few cycles, where you had the largest proportion of voters that were registered as no party. So based on the past few election cycles the amount of money that is pumping in there, looking at $6 to $8 million race, I think it's going to be, again, a very competitive race in November.

Henderson: Mr. Green, in the Second you have Mariannette Miller-Meeks looking for a fourth try for a seat in Congress. You have Rita Hart, the democrat, hoping to succeed a democrat who has held that seat for 14 years. What is the view? You have rating agencies that anywhere from toss-up to lean republican.

Green: It's going to be another competitive race. Open seat elections give opportunities for the out party to try and win seats back. The Second Congressional District in Iowa is a fascinating district because you have extremely rural areas in the state that are within the district and then you have the Quad Cities and you have Johnson County with Iowa City and Coralville. And so I think that if you look at the campaign that Rita Hart has run up to this point, I think she's really running a campaign that reflects the district, the fact that it was a district that Dave Loebsack won in 2016 by 7 points, but the President won that district here in Iowa by 4. So if you listen to the campaign ads or the campaign materials that we see from the Hart campaign she's talking a lot about the fact that she came from a split partisan household and that she understands agriculture and understands education and I think in doing so she is trying to send signals to both sides of the ideological spectrum that she can represent the district well.

Henderson: Chris Larimer, what is the impact of the lawsuit that tossed out the absentee ballot request forms that were sent out for Linn County and in the Second Congressional District Johnson County? Is that going to have any impact on this Second District race?

Larimer: I think it's a little hard to know, I think it's probably a little early to know what effect that is going to be. But I think potentially it could have a significant effect in that it affects the confidence of voters in that district. We've already heard the President, his rhetoric really having an effect, potentially having an effect on the confidence of voters, and then that gets thrown out. Voters have already asked a lot of questions about the number of absentee ballots they've already received, ballot request forms they've received, and so now to have that lawsuit going forward I think that just potentially creates more confusion for voters. And you wonder if it gets to the point where they get so confused and frustrated that they just decide it's not worth it to vote. So I think it's too early to know but I think that's the potential.

Yepsen: Professor Green, aren't we setting up some ballot challenges by republicans here in Woodbury County, Johnson County and Linn County?

Green: For sure. Absolutely. I think you're going to continue to see these trends where there are going to be questions about absentee ballot request forms and whether county auditors around the state have appropriately within the law sent them out to voters.

Yepsen: And it's why we may not know the outcome of some of these races on Election Night.

Masters: Let's get to the Third Congressional District as well. You have democratic Congresswoman Cindy Axne running for a second term against the republican incumbent that she defeated to get that seat. She did really well in Polk County during that election. What kind of odds does she face in running for re-election there?

Green: I think it's going to be an extremely tight race that is going to come down to making sure that she gets the vote out in Polk County and at least meets the level of vote that she received in rural counties if not exceeds that vote. That is going to be extremely important for a lot of these democratic candidates that are running around the state is making sure that the votes that they get in the urban, more purple, bluer regions of the state are large enough but yet doesn't cede rural Iowa all together.

Yepsen: I'm curious, both of you, we're seeing different styles of campaigning this year. Democrats virtual campaigning, avoid the COVID. Republicans they're still out, they're going door-to-door, more rallies. Professor Green, which style works? Which is going to be a better style?

Green: It's going to be really interesting to tell because we haven't had a modern campaign that has been waged in this way before. But I think what we're seeing from the candidates really reflects the voters within their parties too and how they view the coronavirus, how they view whether we should be shutting down the economy, not doing traditional campaigns because of the coronavirus. And it's pretty clear that Americans and Iowans are really polarized on that issue.

Masters: Together with the polls, what does voter registration in the state tell you about how November is going to go? Democrats saw a bump after the Caucuses, republicans have caught up and I believe have passed democrats now. We've still got the no party voters in there. How do you kind of mix all that together for a cocktail to tell you what's going to happen in November?

Larimer: Well, one of the interesting things from earlier this year and I think it was in June is that for the first time in a long time no party voters were not the dominant group in the state. And so I think democrats and republicans have taken that lead. They're kind of, as you said, neck and neck right there. It just speaks to how polarized the electorate is and it potentially speaks to are no party voters starting to sort into one or two of the major parties? And so I think, again, it just shows how polarized the electorate is and how potentially polarized it is in Iowa or at least starting to become.

Henderson: Did the sorting get forced by the primary when Paul Pate sent out an absentee ballot request form to every active voter? Was that the catalyst?

Larimer: Potentially. I'm not sure if that was the case but that's potentially it. I do still wonder though if it's more how polarized the electorate is and how polarized this campaign is if you are starting to see voters just kind of move into one of two camps.

Yepsen: Just a couple of minutes left. Professor Green, in the Fourth District, that's a pretty republican area. It's interesting, republicans have a slight statewide advantage but it's pretty much all packed into Western Iowa and the democrats have slight registration edges in the other three congressional districts. So where does that leave democrat J.D. Scholten against Randy Feenstra?

Green: Mr. Scholten is doing very well in the polling data for a district that really sets up extremely well for republican candidates and for Senator Feenstra. I think what you're seeing in the fact that Mr. Scholten is so close in those polls indicates the amount of grassroots campaigning that he has been doing around that district really for the last couple of years. And so voters have really had a chance to get to know him pre-pandemic and I think that is yielding some dividends for him.

Henderson: Chris Larimer, wouldn't it be a shocker if Randy Feenstra lost that race?

Larimer: I think it would be because he was generally seen as the more "conventional" republican to run in that race and someone who could be better able to hold the seat than the controversial Steve King.

Masters: Real quick question here, we're already seeing republicans come here, it seems really early to be talking about the Caucuses in 2024. For the republicans there are some questions about how things are going to move forward with the democrats. But we’re already seeing some campaigning, or flirting with campaigning running in a few years.

Green: Yeah, I saw today that Tim, I believe Senator Tim Scott is here with Senator Ernst driving around in the RV around the state today. And so we're certainly going to see those candidates flirting with a run in Iowa depending on what happens in November.

Yepsen: What do you think of the republican, start of the republican campaign?

Larimer: It's funny they don't have Governor Branstad's birthday in November to come back to the state right after the election. But it's not surprising. We've seen these campaigns start earlier and earlier. And so I think it's a question for me of how they want to brand themselves and how closely they want to associate themselves with this President.

Yepsen: There will be a republican caucus, we're not sure about the democrats. Game on in the Republican Party. Thank you both for being with us. We're out of time. And we'll be back next week with a special Iowa Press Debate on Monday, September 28th. U.S. Senate candidates republican Joni Ernst and democrat Theresa Greenfield will join us for a live one-hour debate here at Iowa PBS and online at iowapbs.org. That's the Iowa Press U.S. Senate Debate Monday, September 28th live at 7:00 p.m. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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