On this edition of Iowa Press, Chris Larimer, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, and David Andersen, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University, join reporters to discuss the midterm elections. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Joyce Russell, political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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


David Yepsen:                   With only a month and a half until election day, it's crunch time for campaigns. But where are Iowa voters leading and what if any data do we have to analyze? We dive deeper with political scientists Chris Larimer and David Andersen on this edition of Iowa Press.

Voiceover:                          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. 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.

Voiceover:                          For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and news makers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on Statewide Iowa PBS...this is the Friday, September 21 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen:                                Since the 2010 and 2012 elections, Iowa's political balance has shifted dramatically more conservative. Republicans currently control both the US Senate seats, three out of four Congressional offices, the governorship and both chambers in the Iowa legislature. But the political pendulum seems poised to swing back toward Democrats this year. To dive deeper into campaign 2018, we gathered a pair of political science professors. Chris Larimer is from the University of Northern Iowa, and David Andersen teaches at Iowa State University. Gentlemen, thank you both for making the trek to be with us here today.

Chris Larimer:                    Sure. Thank you.

Yepsen:                                Across the table, Joyce Russell covers politics for Iowa Public Radio and Kay Henderson is news director for Radio Iowa.

Kay Henderson:                Professor Larimer, let's start with blue versus red. Which kind of a wave do you think is out there or is there a wave at all?

Larimer:                               I think it's hard to tell if there's a wave, but I think it would be not all that surprising if we saw a blue wave at the federal level, but perhaps a red wave or at least staying red at the state level. I think you know, when you... If you look at the quantitative elements that are out there in terms of relatively low presidential approval rating, um, you know, the generic ballot tests that we always use to try to understand whether or not there's a wave, it would seem to suggest that Democrats have an advantage going into November, at least at the federal level. I think at the state level, that's harder to predict. Um, if you look at kind of the one measure we have in terms of partisanship, that hasn't moved a lot, uh, over the last several months. And so it, and we know about the incumbency advantage in Iowa, particularly at the state level and um, particularly if you look at the number of state legislative districts where you don't have a challenger, I think it's conceivable that you could see a blue wave at the federal level, but maybe not necessarily at the state level.

Henderson:                        Professor Andersen, Iowans no longer get to do single ticket voting. They can't vote for all the Democrats or all the Republicans on the ballot. Do you think that will have some sort of influence in how the wave happens in Iowa?

David Andersen:              It may. We're really uncertain because we're not sure how Iowans are going to react to this. If it does, it'll probably affect those down ballot races that Chris was just talking about and may actually pose a bit of a threat for Republicans. If there's a blue wave farther up the ballot, it may be that people continue ticking those blue boxes as they go farther and farther down and there may be some inroads for the Democrats in the legislature - in the state legislature. Uh, but we're really not sure yet. We're going to have to wait till election day to find out.

Henderson:                        Professor Andersen, you know, people are talking about impact of the tariffs. They're talking about some other, you know, impacts on the mood of voters. Iowa just found out on this Friday that the unemployment rate here is two point five percent for the previous month. What sort of impact are those sort of dynamics having on voter attitudes toward the election?

Andersen:                           Well, usually when we talk about voter attitudes towards an upcoming election, some of the biggest indicators we have are presidential job approval and then the general state of the economy. And the economy right now in Iowa is a bit mixed, because our unemployment is fantastic. Uh, our economic growth is good. But we have the looming dangers of the tariffs, which could really hit the agricultural sector of the economy pretty heavily. And a lot of the Republican base is in the rural segments of Iowa where they're very concerned about this. And what I think we're seeing in some of the polling data right now is that the rural sectors of Iowa are a little ambivalent towards the Republican Party right now. They're trying to stick with the president, but they're very uncertain about the future and they are willing to entertain other options if another viable option presents itself.

Henderson:                        Professor Larimer, do you see issues out there that are sort of motivating voters to either stay home or actually get involved?

Larimer:                               Well, I think tariffs is one of them. Um, uh, you know, you look at this election cycle and I think with the issue with tariffs that Dave mentioned, it's sort of this ongoing field experiment for political science in the sense that at what point do voters actually abandoned their party? Right? And is it on an economic issue like tariffs? Um, you know, perceptions of the economy clearly matter. They matter for gubernatorial campaigns. One of the variables that we often use for predicting an election outcome for a governor's race, is relative unemployment. How well is your state doing relative to the rest of the country? And Iowa's relative, or unemployment rate, as you said, two point five percent is quite good compared to the rest of the country. It's probably the one, one of the economic or kind of clueless quantitative factors that's working in favor of governor Reynolds, right now.

Joyce Russell:                    Well, speaking of Governor Reynolds, let's, uh, let's move to handicapping the governor's race. Given the things that we're talking about, the tariffs, uh, President Trump's popularity, unemployment. How would, what... who do you think has the edge right now? Incumbent Governor Reynolds or her Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell?

Larimer:                               I think it's, I think it's very hard to read right now. Um, I think I would go back to the argument that it's kind of you have a set of qualitative elements in terms of presidential approval and she shares presidential or party affiliation with a relatively unpopular president. So that's working against Governor Reynolds. On the other hand, you know, the economic factors may be somewhat working in her favor. She's going up against a challenger who is relatively well known around the Des Moines area but has not held elected office. So for political science scientists, we often look at challenger strength in terms of have they held elected office and what was the size of their constituency. So Fred Hubbell has not. On the other hand, I think in some of my own research on governors, we know that there's a significant qualitative element in terms of how personal or how relatable are the candidates. I think you're seeing Governor Reynolds working on that. I think you're seeing her challenger Fred Hubbell work on that. But that qualitative element is really hard to get a measure on. And what's interesting in Iowa is that you've seen this race move to the toss up category without any sort of polling. We haven't had a polling for a long time, and I think we need that polling to get a sense of that qualitative element, the extent to which voters still feel comfortable if they did with Governor Reynolds.

Russell:                                 Professor, Andersen, do you think... Governor Reynolds has had a number of opportunities to distance herself from President Trump, and she has not taken those opportunities. She's really done the opposite. Do you think that will have an effect? President Trump's popularity in the state is, is that gonna have an effect on the governor's race?

Andersen:                           I think it will have an effect. Uh, I think Governor Reynolds is doing a smart thing by sticking with the president. Because in order to win this election, she has to keep her base. And right now the Republican base is heavily pro President Trump. Uh, so she has a very tricky path ahead of her, where she has to both motivate her base by saying that she sticks with the president, and yet she has to then pivot towards Independents and some Democrats and say, but I do differ with him on some things and I'll still fight for you and the rest of the state by doing this. It's a very difficult dance she has ahead of her.

Russell:                                 Well to look at some of the issues that... they're not really issues, they're just things that have been out there in the news recently. Governor Reynolds under some scrutiny for the plane rides that she's taken on private planes to various events. On the other side, Mr Hubbell has been in the news to some extent for owning homes in both Arizona and in Iowa. And some questions arising about the property taxes that he has paid. Um, which of those is the greater liability would you say?

Andersen:                           I think, uh, Hubbell's are the bigger liability. Because one of the things I think Governor Reynolds is going to benefit from is that the Republican Party has, for some reason, been rather immune to scandal lately. The Trump Administration has just been consumed by accusation after accusation of corruption at the federal level and the base has stuck with the president. And I think that Governor Reynolds will be able to kind of inoculate herself against this just by saying, you know, it's not a big deal. Don't worry about it. This is not what defines me. Where I think Fred Hubbell right now has yet to fully define himself to the public. So, accusations of owning lots of homes and not really relating to your average Iowan, not paying your taxes properly, uh, this could really define who he is as a candidate. And I think it could hurt him a lot more.

Russell:                                 And just being wealthy. Is that working against him, Professor Larimer?

Larimer:                               I think potentially. I mean, it certainly cuts at that relatability factor. You know, how well can the average Iowan relate to someone like Fred Hubbell, who has incredible wealth? But again, you know, I think that's why you're seeing both Governor Reynolds and Fred Hubbell moving around the state trying to do those more, those smaller meetings to try to get that personal factor working in their favor.

Yepsen:                                Professor Larimer, you've written the book on Iowa Governors. You look down at the list where they come from. Most of them come from pretty small towns. Not from Des Moines, right? Uh, even Bob Ray only won that '68 primary against two rural guys who split the rural vote. How much is the fact that Hubbell is so identified with Des Moines a liability? Or is it true anymore?

Larimer:                               Well, I, it potentially is. Um, I think what's hard to get at on that question is the extent to which rural voters who are not strongly identified with a Democrat or Republican around the state, if they are no party voters or if they identify as independent, to what extent does that matter to them? Um, and, and that's a harder question to get at. I think, you know, you can see Republicans who, really statewide, who would say, well, that's a Des Moines Democrat or a big city liberal. Um, and I think they would use that as a mobilization factor. But I don't know that it's necessarily going to persuade voters to vote one way or the other or move them away from their own party.

Yepsen:                                How about that he hasn't held public office before? Most governors have before they get there.

Larimer:                               Yeah. And I think that's a challenge. That's a challenge in terms of how he does his campaign. That's a challenge for him personally in terms of getting out and talking to voters and being comfortable doing that. And voters can sense that. So I think that's a, that is a significant challenge for him.

Henderson:                        Mr. Andersen, let's talk about the Me, Too movement and maybe how it moves votes in the suburbs, which are important in some areas of the state. Um, you have Senator Grassley involved in the confirmation hearing of Judge Kavanaugh at the federal level. Um, you have, um, a state senator, a Democrat, who withdrew from the primary race because of allegations of sexual impropriety. You have one of the governor's ex allies in David Jamison, the former, Iowa Finance Authority director, who was fired by the governor after these allegations of sexual harassment about his conduct came out. And a report released this week about that. Does that move votes or does that just confirm, I guess, stereotypes in voters' minds?

Andersen:                           I think what we're seeing is that it has the potential to move votes. Right now, if you want to talk about where the energy is in the American electorate.,Uh, one of the big sources of energy is women. Uh, women are leading social movements across the country. Uh, and the Me, Too movement is just one of them. But it's a very large and active movement. And what a lot of women are saying is, sexual harassment is pervasive. It happens to everybody. And it has not been dealt with systematically anywhere in America. And it's time. Uh, we've been talking about this for 40, 50, 60 years and there's been very little public movement. And now is the time and with things like, uh, the accusations against Justice Kavanaugh, I think a lot of women in America are watching TV and saying, well, I want these accusations to be treated fairly. Uh, if an accusation is made, we should have a hearing, we should investigate it. We should see if there's any evidence behind it. And then we should do something about it. And I think Senator Grassley right now has to walk this tightrope. He wants to support his party and his president's nomination. But he also has to demonstrate that the Republican Party is willing to treat these allegations seriously. And if he doesn't, uh, I think the Republican Party has to fear that there will be down-ballot consequences across the country, as women voters who have traditionally supported Republicans say, you know, it's time that you show some change.

Henderson:                        How, Professor Larimer, do you think this impacts a voting block that just hasn't participated at the level of their peers, the quote unquote millennials? Do you think this motivates those particular female millennial voters in a way that it doesn't perhaps their other peers?

Larimer:                               I think potentially. And particularly if this is their first election cycle where they're eligible to vote. I think this is a mobilizing factor. I think Dave and I were talking earlier the number of voter registration drives we're seeing on campus. Uh, you know, I think one of those issues is, is this Me, Too movement, uh, dealing with women's rights, uh, women's rights. And so I think this has the potential to mobilize voters who maybe didn't participate or haven't participated at high levels in the past. I mean, you look at the last midterm election in Iowa in 2014. Uh, if you look at the 18 to 24 year old bracket, I think turnout was around 23 percent. Uh, so if, if I think you can see that, that might be one of those numbers that you watch and if that moves up closer to 30 percent, then it would be, I think a good bet that this was part of the reason why.

Henderson:                        Okay. You brought it up. What's going on on campus in terms of voter registration drives and the outcome there that you're seeing as opposed to the last presidential or the last midterm.

Larimer:                               It's certainly more visible. Campuses, or at least our campus, is certainly making a concerted effort to try to get young voters registered to vote, whether it's in Black Hawk County or throughout the state. And so you're seeing that right now. The real question is, does that carry over to November? Does it carry over to election day where you do see higher turnout among the 18 to 24 year old bracket?

Henderson:                        And at Iowa State? What are you seeing?

Andersen:                           Uh, so just a quick allegory is... we had a voter registration drive come to our introduction to American Government classes. About 250 students, and we had seven students report that they were not already registered. Uh, usually it's at least a third of the class. And to see only seven students acknowledge that they're not registered tells me that there's something afoot out there. Uh, that young people have either responded to prior registration drives or have taken the initiative suddenly and are active and potentially willing to vote.

Yepsen:                                Talk about the... Professor Andersen, you've done some research along with Dianne Bystrom, your former colleague, of the voting behavior of women. What does Kim Reynolds' gender mean? Does she get votes from women because she's a woman. Or, does it hurt her? I mean Joni Ernst, for example, did not carry the votes of women in Iowa. How's it play out?

Andersen:                           Well, I don't think it determines a vote, but it definitely can influence. Uh, when other women see a woman run for office, I think they are more interested in hearing about what she believes in, what she thinks about and they're more willing to listen to her. Sometimes it's easy to just tune out political candidates when they look like the average political candidate. And when most political candidates are white men, when you see a white man, you just fall back on party labels. But when you see somebody who looks different, particularly somebody who looks like you, I think that opens up your mind a little and you say, okay, let me listen to you. And maybe let me listen to your opponent and see who's really talking about the things that I care about. And I think this gives Governor Reynolds a chance to reach out to women across the aisles and try to appeal to them. But we have yet to see whether women in the state start trending towards her. And I don't think we've seen evidence of that yet, but there's still lots of time.

Yepsen:                                Sure, sure.

Russell:                                 Let's move on to the Congressional races. There's a new poll out. New York Times poll out in the First District. 51 to 37 lead from the Democratic challenger Abby Finkenauer over the incumbent Congressman Blum. What do you find surprising about that, Professor Larimer?

Larimer:                               Uh, the, the margin, uh, is, is very surprising. I mean this is a district that obviously went for Congressman Blum in somewhat of a surprise in 2014. And then his margins went up in 2016, in a presidential year, where he won 18 out of 20 counties. And you know, these last two cycles, he's, he's been ranked as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the US House. But again, his margin went up in 2016. So you know, the fact that she holds a 14 point margin, that's very surprising. Because this district, you know, it, it's, you see the ratings on it move around a lot. You see it as either a tossup district or, or lean democratic district. But what's unique about it I think is that yes, Democrats outnumber Republicans, but you have 37 percent of the district, or at least of active voter,s are registered with no party. And so that adds a significant sort of unpredictable element to the race. And at least right now, you know, all the polls that we're seeing about the Democratic wave at the federal level. If that New York Times poll is correct, that seems to be, or at least sugges,t that that's translating down into Iowa's First Congressional District.

Henderson:                        You're seeing the advertising, because you live in that district. What do you see from the two candidates, and does that say anything to you about the race?

Larimer:                               Well, Abby Finkenauer's ads are very much about it's a personal issue for her. That seems to be the entire, the real focus of it. It's not necessarily an issue based campaign. And most campaigns don't do that anymore. But it's just about a race that's very personal for her. Um, and that's, that's the primary message.

Henderson:                        In Ames, you live in Congressman King's district, but you watch media where you see this race between Congressman David Young in the First, in the Third District rather, and his Democratic challenger, Cindy Axne. What's your analysis of what's happening there?

Andersen:                           Well, I actually think the Young and Axne race is going to be the most competitive in Iowa this year. Uh, and I think it's gonna be really exciting to watch, because right now it looks like a toss up. But a lot of the indication is that there is a blue wave potentially building in Iowa at the federal level. And I think it's going to be interesting to see whether Miss Axne can really turn this into a victory on election day. It seems like she has a lot of things going in her favor. And that turns attention to the Fourth District, too, uh, where we shouldn't really have to pay attention to the Fourth District. It is as reliable a Republican district as we find, particularly in Iowa, but also around the country. And there are some indications that Congressman King is also feeling a little heat this year, uh, with his polling narrowing continually. Uh, and if a 14 point lead can be manufactured in the First District, uh, that would erode most of his support in the Fourth District, too. If those margins were similar, uh, it could be competitive.

Yepsen:                                What else do you see in the Fourth District? This talk about Congressman King's in trouble. Why do you say that?

Andersen:                           What I see in the Fourth is that there are a lot of deep red Republicans that are sticking with the party. They are committed to sticking with the Republican Party. But there were also some lukewarm Republicans that traditionally are there for the party. And they seem to be hedging their bets right now. If you look at the polling inside the Fourth District, the margins of undecided voters are enormous. It's upwards of 20 percent still, and we're still only 60 days out. Uh, my indication there is that these are a lot of former King supporters are getting very frustrated with politics at the federal level and are considering making a switch.

Yepsen:                                Professor Larimer, is this a referendum on Steve King that voters oh, he's been there a long time, we need a change? Or is it a vote for J.D. Scholten, his Democratic challenger, who's relatively unknown?

Larimer:                               Well, I would say it's probably more just that the campaign like they seem to have every cycle is... it's become nationalized. It's all about presidential politics and the extent to which...what the voters think about the Republican Party, what they think about President Trump. We know that Congressman King has, you know, obviously, uh, you know, kind of cozied up to President Trump, particularly on immigration, which is a very polarizing issue, particularly given the president's stance. And so I think it's more just about presidential politics than anything.

Yepsen:                                You know, to many Iowa politicians, things like yard signs are a big deal. They're not political scientists, but they're at the grassroots. And they say Steve King doesn't have his yard signs up yet. That the only ones they see are for J.D. Scholten. Is that an indicator of anything, professor?

Larimer:                               Well, it, it, it's, they're hard to measure. And I'm sure Dave's familiar with the research, too. Field experiments, trying to test the effect of yard signs, are really, really difficult to do, because you have to try to randomize where the yard signs are put. You're measuring traffic and so forth. And you know, there's some evidence that they at least increase name recognition. But I mean, on the other hand, the practical side of it, for yard signs, if your opponent has them up, you have to put them up.

Yepsen:                                Maybe King's being smart and not putting them up so somebody doesn't tear them down. Joyce?

Russell:                                 Moving on to the legislative races. Also very important. The Democrats in the Iowa House have done an especially good job this year of recruiting candidates. 95 out of the 100 races they've put someone up. They're expressing optimism for taking over the House. Still kind of an uphill battle. Professor, how do you rate their chances?

Andersen:                           Um, I think they're still underdogs. But I think they're putting themselves in the right position, where if things go their way, uh, there could be a big upset in Iowa. We're still 60 days out from the election. And the field is kind of ripe for the Democrats to have a chance to succeed. A lot of the big indications out there, the president's approval rating. It's not very good. That may drive people away from Republicans. But protecting Republicans right now is the economy. Unemployment's great. Uh, I don't think the president's numbers are going to move very much, but if the economy fails to produce the big numbers we've been used to over the past several years, uh, there could be further weakening on the Republican side and that opens the door to a floodgate of Democratic votes.

Yepsen:                                Chris Larimer, how do you see the battle for the legislature?

Larimer:                               I think it's still, I would agree with David that it's, it's, it's still an uphill battle there. Uh, you know, the hard part with predicting the state legislative races is that they become so personal as you get down to the, particularly the House district where you're talking districts of about 30,000 people. So I think mobilization is going to be part of it where, you know, are you mobilizing, say Democratic voters who are more intermittent voters in midterm elections? They don't always vote in a midterm. Versus, you know, if you're talking about long time Republican voters who you're trying to get to persuade to vote Democrat, but they know the candidates running personally.

Russell:                                 Any prospects for Democrats taking over the Senate? Or is it pretty likely that Republicans, they're actually going to increase their majority?

Larimer:                               I don't know that they'll increase it. But I think again, it's an uphill battle. I mean, there are always the competitive districts. Um, you know, uh, throughout the state, whether it's Senator Ragan's district or Senator Bertrand's district are always pretty competitive in terms of party registration. But I think it's still very much an uphill battle.

Yepsen:                                We've got just a couple minutes left. We've had two very tragic murders in this state in recent days. Is this, Professor Larimer, or I'll ask you both to answer this. Is this going to have any impact on the Iowa electorate. You see any issues changing, calls for the death penalty?

Larimer:                               I don't know about calls for the death penalty. Um, and you know, with, with the first tragic death with Molly Tibbetts, you know, we saw some talk about change on immigration policy. But then we also have heard from her family to say not to politicize the issue. And so that's, I think, uh, made the issue kind of move off the move off the plate a little bit. So I don't know that you're gonna see a significant change in public policy on this.

Yepsen:                                What do you see?

Andersen:                           I'd agree with that. These are really difficult times, I think, at both universities where the student body has been very effected by this. And I'm actually very happy to see that it has been not very politicized so far, at least on the universities. And I hope it doesn't spread to the electorate.

Henderson:                        Let me ask one last question and again, we don't have a lot of time. Um, maybe about the Montague's versus the Capulets or whatever we want to call the two teams on which people have allied themselves. Are there any really true swing voters out there anymore? Professor Larimer?

Larimer:                               Uh, I think it's getting harder. We're seeing more and more research about voter persuasion just simply doesn't happen. Um, and you're seeing less talk among, between the two sides in terms of compromise. We're seeing that people are more identifying with political parties out of their dislike or disgust with the other party rather than aligning on policy views. So I think that makes it harder.

Henderson:                        Mr. Andersen?

Andersen:                           I think there's room for it. Uh, I don't think we're seeing much evidence of persuasion working right now. But uh, usually in American politics every 40 years or so, we have a fundamental shift in how we talk about politics, what issues rise to the fore. And in 2018, one of the things we're looking for is this may be the year of the millennials, where millennials for the first time in 40 years dethrone baby boomers as the largest voting block. And millennials are nothing like baby boomers. What they care about, what they want, what they expect out of government are very different. And if millennials step up, I think the conversation changes. We start talking about new issues and as we start talking about new issues, I think we can start talking across partisans.

Yepsen:                                I've got to call a halt to the proceedings here. We're out of time. Thank you both again for being with us today. And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week as we profile the race for state auditor. Incumbent Republican Mary Mosiman and Democratic challenger Rob Sand join us here at the Iowa Press table at our regular times... 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday on Iowa PBS's main channel with a rebroadcast Saturday morning on our .3 World channel. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen, and thanks for joining us today.

Voiceover:                          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. 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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