Iowa’s political geography

The Iowa Democratic Party will hold its caucuses on Feb. 3. Iowa has gotten more candidate visits, and more campaign office openings, than any other early-voting state. That’s a lot for a state where just 250,000 voters would amount to record-breaking turnout in February. And it’s a lot for a state that looks less and less like the Democratic Party’s core voters. In 2016, 90 percent of Iowa’s caucusgoers were white.

But Iowa looms large in Democratic thinking. As candidates never tire of saying, 31 Iowa counties flipped from blue to red in 2016, more than any other state. As candidates also note — because it gets more applause — Democrats won three of the state’s four congressional districts in 2018, after being reduced to one in 2016.

Any candidate who wins the state on Feb. 3 will be a contender, perhaps the favorite, for the party’s nomination. So, how do they pull it off? Interviews with Iowa Democrats and veterans of previous caucus campaigns came up with the same answer: organize like crazy, preferably in the right places, and don’t let voters think you’re ignoring them.

The “right places” are easy to define. On caucus night, Democrats will walk into designated caucus sites where each candidate — serious campaigns will have a staffer or volunteer on site — is assigned a different section of the room. If any candidate fails to get 15 percent support, his or her supporters get to pick again: They can leave, or they can walk over to the clump of supporters around their second-choice candidate.

Every precinct gets at least one delegate, no matter how many Democrats show up. Through gritted teeth, Iowans sometimes compare this to the electoral college — a few rural votes can count more than a stampede of voters in some Des Moines or Davenport precincts.

That has been part of Iowa’s rules since the beginning, in 1972, and it matters on the margins. Tiny Union Township in Cass County, for example, has just 495 residents, a handful of them Democrats. It will elect just one delegate, while the dozens of Democrats likely to show up to Ankeny’s 12th precinct will elect 17 delegates. It’s possible for a candidate to show massive strength in one area and lose because he or she never got organized in forgotten parts of Iowa. Every campaign knows that, and some of them will be ready.

There are more complications, such as the fact that these are delegates to the county convention (not the national convention, to be elected later), or that the party will release complete vote totals alongside the delegate count, which creates the possibility of two “winners” from a major international news event.

Campaigns can’t control all that. They can control where they organize and where they send the candidates. Yes, there are campaigns, every cycle, that hit all 99 Iowa counties — this time, former Maryland congressman John Delaney has done so twice. But no Democrat has done the “full Grassley,” named for Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) who initiated that tradition, and then won the caucuses, since Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) did it in 1988. Most campaigning and organizing have taken place across nine regions of the state, where more than three-quarters of delegates will be selected.

This guide isn’t meant to diminish the smaller counties. Indeed, late on the night of Feb. 3, there will be campaigns wondering whether they got enough of an advantage in tiny southwest Iowa precincts to pull ahead statewide. What these maps should do is clarify where most of the action is, and why, and what it could take to dominate the caucuses.

I’ll also note which candidate won these regions in the last three contested caucuses. The statewide winners in each of those contests went on to be the party’s nominee: Hillary Clinton in 2016, Barack Obama in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004.

Polk County

Polk County is the most populous of Iowa’s 99 counties and it’s growing every year. It’ll select 392 delegates, nearly one-fifth of the total, everywhere from downtown Des Moines to the precincts around Drake University to fast-changing suburbs such as Urbandale.

What campaigns are trying not to do is give off the impression that they’re overly focused on Des Moines. Sure, the county’s media market covers the biggest swath of Democratic voters, but the record for candidates who tried to run up the score there is poor; when Republicans called Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “the mayor of Ankeny,” it wasn’t a compliment. Polk is wealthier, more diverse and more highly educated than the rest of the state, with 35.3 percent of residents, and a higher share of caucusgoers, holding at least a bachelor’s degree; statewide, that number is 27.7 percent.

  • 2016 winner: Hillary Clinton
  • 2008 winner: Barack Obama
  • 2004 winner: John Edwards

Greater Des Moines area

Most of the growth in the greater Des Moines area has come in its suburbs and exurbs, and all told those counties select 150 delegates. They’re relatively easy to reach on short campaign trips; Dallas County, in particular, has become a bigger pull for Democrats as it grows more competitive in general elections.

The attitude at campaign stops ranges from a we-haven’t-forgotten-you tone in rural parts of Guthrie County to a celebration of the party’s gains in areas where shrinking the GOP’s margins helped elect new Rep. Cindy Axne in 2018.

  • 2016 winner: Clinton
  • 2008 winner: Edwards
  • 2004 winner: Edwards

Along Mississippi River

The old industrial towns along the Mississippi River were, until 2016, part of the Democratic Party’s Midwest stronghold. Hillary Clinton held on to Scott County, where Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa’s chunk of the Quad Cities, stayed blue. She badly lost the rest of the area in the general election, which led to a sustained Democratic focus on those counties that won them back in 2018′s House races.

None of that changed the region’s importance in caucuses: Scott, Muscatine and Clinton control 176 delegates. But it has changed the way Democrats approach the area, less as a place that the party can count on than one it needs to persuade to come home. Visits to Davenport often start with candidates explaining why and how they can play in “Trump country” and emphasizing the risks of climate change along river towns that were not built for it.

  • 2016 winner: Bernie Sanders
  • 2008 winner: Obama
  • 2004 winner: John Kerry

Liberal archipelago

Call this the liberal archipelago. Candidates can’t ignore rural Iowa, but most Democratic campaigning happens in a constellation of college towns and midsize cities. Together, the counties of Story, Black Hawk, Linn, Johnson and Jefferson contain tens of thousands of college students and 547 delegates. In 2016, Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton in every one of those counties; in Jefferson, home to the Maharishi University of Management and some of the state’s most reliably left-wing voters, he won by 46 points.

Each county stands out for a different reason. Black Hawk, which contains both the college town of Cedar Falls and the old industrial center of Waterloo, has far more black voters than the state at large. Story has the liberal precincts of Ames; the rest of the county isn’t as liberal.

  • 2016 winner: Sanders
  • 2008 winner: Obama
  • 2004 winner: Kerry

Siouxland

Siouxland is exactly the sort of place that Democrats, toward the end of the Obama years, tended to ignore: a Republican stronghold where even intense campaigning probably wouldn’t move votes. Only one of its counties, Woodbury, was competitive, and that was entirely because of Democratic-leaning Sioux City. The rest was deep red, and remote, and Democrats took another look at it only after J.D. Scholten, a former baseball player who mounted a quixotic-seeming challenge to GOP Rep. Steve King, came close to beating him.

Since then, Democrats have repeatedly come to campaign here, though it offers just 86 delegates, most of them in Woodbury.

  • 2016 winner: Sanders
  • 2008 winner: Edwards
  • 2004 winner: Kerry

Northeast Iowa

There is an endless debate about where “northeast” Iowa begins, but the counties of Worth, Mitchell, Cerro Gordo and Floyd used to mark the transition from red Iowa to blue Iowa — an unbroken line of Democratic votes from Clear Lake to the Mississippi River. Then came 2016, when all four counties, having backed Barack Obama twice, voted for Donald Trump.

Democrats have been working the counties heavily since then, even though they offer only 52 delegates, mostly in Mason City and the surrounding Cerro Gordo County.

  • 2016 winner: Clinton
  • 2008 winner: Clinton
  • 2004 winner: Kerry

Dubuque area

The biggest urban center in northeast Iowa, Dubuque and the surrounding counties have 93 delegates and a well-organized Democratic base, which has recently always voted for the overall winner of the caucuses. It’s the region of the state where Catholics are most dominant, but that hasn’t played much into recent Democratic politics.

  • 2016 winner: Clinton
  • 2008 winner: Obama
  • 2004 winner: Kerry

Council Bluffs

The Council Bluffs area is one of the hardest to till for votes. Local Democrats have been losing numbers; many of the people who show up for events have driven over from Nebraska, and the nearby counties are largely rural. There are just 62 delegates at play, but the region gets plenty of Democratic activity, both as a base to reach rural southeast Iowa and as a place to demonstrate the damage climate change and trade wars have done to voters who largely backed Trump in 2016.

  • 2016 winner: Sanders
  • 2008 winner: Clinton
  • 2004 winner: Kerry

Southeast Iowa

No part of the state showcased the gap between traditional Democratic strength and Clinton’s problems like southeast Iowa, a string of small and often-shrinking communities that bolted the party’s nominee in the 2016 general election, while reelecting Democratic Rep. David Loebsack. Between them, the counties of Henry, Des Moines, Lee, Van Buren, Wapello, Mahaska and Marion select 105 delegates, mostly in cities such as Keokuk and Ottumwa. When Democrats want to show strength with blue-collar voters, they often head here.

  • 2016 winner: Clinton
  • 2008 winner: Edwards
  • 2004 winner: Edwards

Story by David Weigel. Get his Trailer newsletter for insight from the campaign trail and around the country.

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