By Jonathan Weisman
With the Iowa caucuses five days away, politicians will be crisscrossing the state, blowing through small-town Pizza Ranches, filling high school gyms, and flipping pancakes at church breakfasts.
What Iowans will not be seeing are Democrats. President Joe Biden spoke Friday in Pennsylvania, and he and Vice President Kamala Harris both were in South Carolina over the weekend and on Monday. But Iowa, a state that once sizzled with bipartisan politics, launched Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and seesawed between Republican and Democratic governors, has largely been ceded to the GOP as part of a remarkable sorting of voters in the Upper Midwest.
There is no single reason that over the past 15 years the Upper Midwest saw Iowa turn into a beacon of Donald Trump’s populism, North and South Dakota shed storied histories of prairie populism for a conservatism that reflected the national GOP, and Illinois and Minnesota move dramatically leftward. (Sandwiched in between, Wisconsin found an uncomfortable parity between its conservative rural counties and its more industrial and academic centers in Milwaukee and Madison.)
No state in the nation swung as heavily Republican between 2012 and 2020 as Iowa, which went from a 6-percentage-point victory for Barack Obama to an 8-point win for Trump in the last presidential election.
Deindustrialization of rural reaches and the Mississippi River regions had its impact, as did the hollowing out of institutions, from civic organizations to small-town newspapers, that had given the Upper Midwest a character separate from national politics.
Susan Laehn, an Iowa State University political scientist who lives in the small town of Jefferson, Iowa, recounted how an issue that once would have been handled through discussions at church or the Rotary Club instead became infected with national politics, with her husband, the libertarian Greene County attorney, stuck in the middle: New multicolored lighting installed last summer to illuminate the town’s carillon bell tower prompted an angry debate over LGBTQ+ rights, leaving much of the town soured on identity politics that they largely blamed on the national left.
Another issue: Brain drain. The movement of young college graduates out of Iowa and the Dakotas to the metropolises of Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul made a mark on the politics of all five states.
An analysis in 2022 by economists at the University of North Carolina, the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago of data gleaned from LinkedIn showed how states with dynamic economic centers are luring college graduates from more rural states. Iowa loses 34.2% of its college graduates, worse than 40 of the 50 states, just below North Dakota, which loses 31.6%. Illinois, by contrast, gains 20% more college graduates than it produces. Minnesota has about 8% more than it produces.
Even when young families look to move back to the rural areas they grew up in, they are often thwarted by an acute housing shortage, said Benjamin Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota extension in St. Cloud, Minnesota; 75% of rural homeowners are baby boomers or older, and those older residents see boarded-up businesses and believe their communities’ best days are behind them, he said.
As such older voters grow frustrated and more conservative, the trend is accelerating. Iowa, which had a congressional delegation split between two House Republicans, two House Democrats and two Republican senators in 2020, now has a government almost wholly under Republican control, which has enacted boldly conservative policies that ban almost all abortions and transition care for minors, publicly fund vouchers for private schools and pull books describing sexual acts from school libraries. (The library and abortion laws are now on hold in the courts.) The congressional delegation is now entirely Republican after a 2022 GOP sweep in House races and the reelection of Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Meantime on the east bank of the Mississippi, in Illinois, high-capacity semi-automatic rifles have been banned, the right to an abortion has been enshrined in law and recreational marijuana is legal. Upriver in Minnesota, pot is legal, unauthorized immigrants are getting driver’s licenses, and voting access for felons and teens is expanding.
Such policy dichotomies are influencing the decisions of younger Iowans, said David Loebsack, a former Democratic House member from eastern Iowa.
“These people are going, and I fear they’re going to keep going, given the policies that have been adopted,” he said.
The politics of rural voters in the Upper Midwest may simply be catching up to other rural regions that turned conservative earlier, said Sam Rosenfeld, a political scientist at Colgate University and author of “The Polarizers,” a book on the architects of national polarization. Southern rural white voters turned sharply to the right in the 1960s and 1970s as Black southerners gained power with the civil rights movement and attendant legislation, he noted.
But rural voters in the Upper Midwest, where few Black people lived, held on to a more diverse politics for decades longer. North Dakota, with its state bank, state grain mill and state grain elevator, has retained vestiges of a socialist past, when progressive politicians railed against rapacious business interests from the Twin Cities. Even still, its politics have changed dramatically.
“Until relatively recently, there was a Midwestern rural white voter who was distinct from a southern rural white voter,” Rosenfeld said. “There was a real progressive tradition in the Midwest un-co-opted by Jim Crow and racial issues.”
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics explains polarization as a tale of the top half versus the bottom half of the population scale. If more than half a state’s vote comes from dominant metropolitan areas, as is the case in Illinois and Minnesota, states tend to be Democratic. If smaller, rural counties dominate, states tend to move right.
Of the nine largest counties in Iowa, only one, Dubuque, switched from Obama to Trump in 2016. Biden’s margin in those counties in 2020 was only 3 percentage points lower than Obama’s winning 2012 margin.
But Obama also carried 31 of the 90 smaller counties; Biden won none. As a group, Obama lost those rural counties by 2.5 percentage points to his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Biden lost them to Trump by nearly 30 percentage points.
Kondik attributed some of that to Trump, whose anti-immigrant, protectionist policies diverged from traditional Republican positions. “He was a good fit for the Midwest,” he said.
But the sweeping Republican victories in Iowa in 2022, when Trump was not on the ballot and the GOP faltered in much of the country, point to other factors. Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa, again pointed to demographics. The huge groundswell of first-time 18-year-old voters who propelled Obama in 2008 were 22 and graduating college in 2012. By 2016, many of them had likely left the state, Larimer said.
“I don’t know if Iowa is any different from anywhere else; it’s caught up in the nationalization of politics,” he said. “Young people are moving into the urban core, and that’s turning the outskirts more red.”