By Craig Robinson
It seems only appropriate that the 2012 presidential race could very well end where it all began – the state of Iowa. Obviously, Iowa isn’t the only battleground state. A handful of other states are also worthy of the designation, but Iowa is more important than it has ever been in terms of determining the outcome of the presidential election. Ohio might be the biggest prize tonight, but Iowa is likely to play a critical role no matter who wins the Buckeye state.
Iowa is the state that launched Obama when he shocked many by winning the Iowa Caucuses in 2008. Romney finished in second place in consecutive caucuses, but while he’s never tasted an Iowa victory, he began cultivating relationships in the state even before George W. Bush won re-election in 2004. Despite the fact that Iowans catapulted the first African-American into the presidency, and despite the effort that Romney has put into this state over the years, Iowa is by every definition a swing state.
With Election Day upon us, the difference between registered Republicans and registered Democrats in the state has been whittled down to just a 1,400-voter advantage in favor of the GOP. In June of this year, Iowa Republicans enjoyed a 21,000-voter advantage over Democrats, but the Obama campaign’s relentless pursuit of registering voters and attempting to get them to vote early has wiped that advantage away.
Republicans shouldn’t be too upset about the new voter registration numbers. They still have a lead, and let’s not forget that they trailed Democrats by over 111,000 following the 2008 campaign, meaning they are still 90,000 registered voters ahead of where they were four years ago. The recent registered voter gains by Democrats have also come from just four counties, Johnson, Linn, Polk, and Story. While significant, it’s safe to assume that some of these new registrants were more of a result of seeing Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen than the president’s policies.
Even still, the tightening of the registered voter numbers only confirms what we already know – Iowa is a battleground state. In years like 2006 and 2008, Democrats dominated up and down the ballot. Likewise in a Republican year like 2010, the GOP made significant gains.
The question that’s on everyone’s mind as we wait for the results is, what kind of year will 2012 be?
In some respects, I expect this to be a continuation of the 2010 election, however the presidential election at the top of the ballot makes it more difficult to project. In September of 2008, we already knew that Barak Obama would be the 44th President of the United States. We also knew that Terry Branstad would return to the Governor’s office long before Election Day in 2010. We don’t have that luxury this cycle.
What makes this election so interesting is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. Even more frustrating is that we might not know who the President will be or who will control the Iowa Senate until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. It seems like a sinister trick to play on Iowans who have had a front-row seat to the 2012 election for over two years to have to wait past the ten o’clock news to see the results.
As Tom Petty once aptly put it, “The waiting is the hardest part.” So, if you are like me and need something to occupy your mind while the results begin to trickle in, you can look for some trends that might give us an indication of what way Iowa will go tonight. Here is what I’m going to be watching once the polls close at 9 p.m.
Polk County Results
Not only is Polk County the largest county in the state, but it’s also one of the fastest in posting election results. Polk County is not a barometer for the entire state, but there are a number of things we can glean from Polk County soon after the polls close.
Latham/Boswell Race: If Congressman Leonard Boswell has any chance of defeating Congressman Tom Latham, he needs a healthy margin in Polk County. There are 20,000 more registered Democrats in Polk County than Republicans. Boswell will need all of that and more to win.
Polk County might also give us a glimpse of how well President Obama performs in urban areas. Obama garnered 121,000 votes in 2008, and the county gave him a 31,000 margin over John McCain.
Iowa House Snapshot: There are a number of Iowa House races in Polk County, and a few of them might set the tone on election night. The three races to watch are House Districts 30, 39, and 40. All three of these seats are currently held by Republicans, but two retirements and one primary defeat leave these seats without a Republican incumbent.
Democrats have recruited pro-business candidates with strong ties to the community in each of these seats. Good recruiting combined with the Democrats’ early voting prowess have made these races more competitive than they really should be. It also might be wise to keep an eye on Rep. Chris Hagenow in District 43 for the same reason. Hagenow is expected to win, and he won election for the first time in 2008 in a much worse political environment.
Other Urban Areas
In addition to Polk County, the state’s other urban areas are also home to several Iowa House races and a few Iowa Senate races that could go a long way in shaping the Iowa Legislature.
Cedar Rapids: There are a couple Iowa House seats to watch in Cedar Rapids. Republican incumbents Rep. Renee Schulte and Rep. Nick Wagner are seeking re-election. Schulte’s opponent is the Democrat she narrowly defeated in 2008. Shulte and Wagner are both outstanding campaigners. Proof of that is their ability to win in 2008, even if by small margins. Still, Cedar Rapids isn’t very hospitable to Republicans.
Council Bluffs: The big race to watch in Council Bluffs is the contest between Democrat Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstanl and Republican Al Ringgenberg. Knocking off Gronstal would give Republicans a lot of joy and satisfaction, but more importantly, it would get them one step closer to a majority in the Iowa Senate. It would also be wise to keep an eye on the two House seats that make up Gronstal’s Senate District. Republican incumbents Rep. Mark Brandenburg and Rep. MaryAnn Hanusa currently hold those seats.
Davenport: Two races to watch in the Quad City area are House District 92, where Ross Paustian is seeking re-election, and Senate District 46. These seats are not as urban as the others listed here, but this area can be difficult in a presidential cycle. If Republicans hold both of these seats they will feel really good tonight. State Senator Shawn Hamerlinck is in a tight battle with Democrat Chris Brace. Again, Mississippi river counties in a presidential cycle are always tough.
Sioux City: The only member/member matchup in the Iowa House takes place in Sioux City. Redistricting has put two freshman legislators in the same House district for 2012. Republican Rep. Jerry Taylor is facing off against Rep. Chris Hall in a district that favors Democrats in terms of voter registration, but voted for Governor Terry Branstad and Congressman Steve King in the last election.
Waterloo: Matt Reisetter is challenging Democrat State Senator Jeff Danielson in Senate District 30. This has been a spirited race that has gotten more negative as the election neared. The district has a Republican registered voter advantage, but knocking off an incumbent is always difficult. If Republicans win here, they are likely to be in the majority in the senate come January. The Waterloo/Cedar Falls area also has some Iowa House seats to watch.
The Other Statewide Race
Outside of the presidential race, the judicial retention of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins is the only other statewide race. Other justices are up for retention, but Wiggins is the judge who’s fighting for his life. Over half of the votes against the three Iowa Supreme Court Justices that were ousted in 2010 came from western Iowa. That might not surprise you, but it’s not the most populated half of the state. It might take a while for all the results to come in, but once a decent percentage of the precincts are in, we should have a good idea if he stays or if he goes.
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