The two (or three) faces of Iowa

With the Iowa caucuses little more than a week away, the holiday season is already over for political bloggers. I’m not rash enough to make predictions, and I can’t add much to the warnings that turnout in the Iowa caucuses is so unpredictable that polls and past election results are of limited value. But there is data to be mined while we wait for the actual vote. Below is a map showing how the general election vote in each Iowa county changed from 2000 to 2004. This is an especially important data point in Iowa, because it was one of only two states to oppose George W. Bush in 2000 but support him four years later (New Mexico was the other), and the result was extremely close both times (Al Gore won by 4,000 votes and Bush won by 10,000 votes). The consensus view is that the Democrats need to win the state back if they have any hope of winning the White House next time.


So this map may give some context to the results of next week’s caucuses. A Democrat who does well in the counties colored red (the ones with a significant number of voters who supported Al Gore but not John Kerry) may be better able to appeal to independents or "soft" Democrats in the fall. The three largest counties in this category are Pottawattamie, which borders Nebraska; and Dallas and Warren, which include newer parts of the Des Moines metro area. In the last caucuses, John Kerry won Pottawattamie and John Edwards won Dallas and Warren counties. If Edwards can take Pottawattamie this time, he not only has a good chance of winning the caucuses but also can strengthen his "electability" argument.

On the Republican side, the red counties are where Bush’s 2004 campaign had the most resonance, and they represent areas essential for holding onto a 51 percent majority. In 2000, Bush won a majority of the caucus vote in Pottawattamie and Dallas counties, but more conservative candidates held him below 50 percent in Warren County.

The green counties on our map showed more resistance to Bush’s re-election campaign, and in a few of them his percentage even declined from 2000 to 2004. A Democrat who does well in these areas may be better suited to a more partisan campaign, one where the right kind of turnout could push the party to just over 50 percent. The three largest counties in this category are Johnson and Story, which both have large universities, and Linn, which includes Cedar Rapids (the largest city in Iowa outside of Des Moines). Kerry won all three in 2004, even though Howard Dean had been expected to sweep the university towns.

Green counties have an opposite meaning for the Republican candidates. They represent the places where the contemporary GOP has had tough sledding, and they are why Iowa has changed from solidly Republican (as late as 1980, when Ronald Reagan took it by double digits) to one of the most unpredictable states in presidential politics. If a Republican candidate shows strength here, he may be able to win back some former GOP voters in November — unless turnout in the Republican caucuses is so poor that only diehard party loyalists vote. Bush easily carried the two college counties in the 2000 Republican caucuses, but the hard-line conservatives (including Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes)  kept him below a majority in Linn County.