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  • Writer's pictureGarrett Kramme

Pivot Counties: To the Right, Take it Back Now Y'all

It’s a tough time to be a Democrat in Iowa. In the wake of the 2022 elections, Democrats do not hold a single congressional seat in the state – the first time this has been the case since 1956. Governor Kim Reynolds won by nearly 20 points, even winning the Democratic strongholds of Black Hawk County and Scott County. Democrats lost all but one of their statewide officers, despite running popular incumbents against unpopular challengers. Their only remaining statewide elected, State Auditor Rob Sand, won by a mere .25%. Democrats are relegated to small minorities in the state legislature, with no plausible path back to the majority anytime soon. And with the DNC abandoning the Iowa caucuses, Democratic investment in the once swing-y state has all but evaporated. Just like Missouri to its south, Iowa has left its competitive days behind and become a solidly Republican state. So what happened?

The story of Iowa’s days as a competitive state starts and ends with 33 so-called pivot counties, counties that voted for Barack Obama twice and then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. The majority of these counties are in the eastern part of the state, in an area known politically as the Driftless Region. The real Driftless Region is a small area surrounding the Wisconsin-Iowa border that escaped glaciation, therefore leaving it with hillier and more diverse terrain. The political definition of this area includes its real extent, but also includes Northwest Illinois down to Peoria, Southwest Wisconsin up to Eau Claire, Southeast Minnesota up to Minneapolis, and most of Eastern Iowa, from Mason City to Keokuk. This area was center stage for Trump’s massive improvements with non-college educated white voters, and nowhere else was that improvement seen in greater scope than Iowa.

Iowa’s 33 Pivot Counties, in Dark Red. These counties voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. (Orange-Red: Woodbury county voted for Obama in 2012 only and Trump twice).

However, in order to understand why these counties swung so hard towards Republicans, we must first understand why they became so Democratic. Unlike most rural areas, Democratic candidates saw substantial support in the rural driftless region counties in the 2000’s. But it was not always this way. In fact, the region was one of the more Republican areas in the country through most of the 20th century. But, on a dime in 1988, the area would begin voting en masse for Democrats.

The reason was clear enough. The 1980s were some of the most difficult times for farmers since the Great Depression, and millions of farmers across the Midwest lost their livelihoods as the price of grain plummeted and the government did little to assist. The lucky ones buckled down and weathered the decade of crisis, while the unlucky ones had to sell their farms and move. By 1988, farmers enraged by the Reagan Administration’s meager assistance voted for Democrats across the board, many for the first time of their lives. This massive shift swept across all of Iowa, but landed hardest in the more fertile East. The Driftless Region would notch some of the strongest swings towards Democrats across the country, and it would quickly become a Democratic stronghold throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Former President Barack Obama, like those before him, would win convincingly in East Iowa, propelled by strong rural support in the Driftless Region. But he was to be the last. Hillary Clinton, to the shock of many, lost 33 Obama counties to Trump, and Biden was unable to win a single one back. In fact, Trump improved upon his 2016 margins in East Iowa in 2020, even with the country as a whole becoming more Democratic.

Pundits would spend the years after the 2016 election trying to figure out why exactly this happened. They visited bars in Ohio, resorts in Florida, and farms in Iowa. But all their searching unveiled a pretty simple answer: these voters liked Trump and the Republican Party he represented. Trump, standing as a departure from the days of Reagan and Bush, represented a new chapter in the Republican Party, a chapter that strongly departed from the Reaganite Republicans that rural voters in the Driftless Region disliked so much.

Voters in Eastern Iowa would agree with this sentiment. Many of these voters did not like the establishment nature of the Republican Party pre-2016 and tended to think candidates like Romney and Bush weren’t in their corner. In spite of this, 30 years after the Farm Crisis, the ill-will towards Republicans had begun to fade. Obama in 2012 had performed broadly worse across the region than in 2008, and voters began to find themselves increasingly estranged from the liberalizing and increasingly technocratic Democratic Party. Trump, to them, was a breath of fresh air. His populist rhetoric, addressing the issues they cared about and focusing less on appeasing the Republican establishment, was the kind of Republican that they were looking for. Detached from a Democratic Party that seemed to care less about them and more about suburbanites and urbanites, these voters cast their ballots for Republicans for the first time in decades and never looked back.

In many ways, this shift in Iowa can be seen less as a realignment and more as a return to form. These Driftless Region voters have always been more conservative than the Democratic Party writ large and never really could be defined as liberal. Indeed, these voters were staunchly Republican pre-Farm Crisis. In retrospect, this shift was all but inevitable, given the Republican Party’s populist lurch and the Democratic Party’s increasing affluence and urbanization.

The impact of this shift has been uniquely felt by Iowa Democrats. The 33 aforementioned “pivot counties” account for one-third of Iowa's 99 counties, which is the most of any state from 2012 to 2016. In addition, states like Illinois and Wisconsin have large cities and leftward trending suburbs, which Democrats have used to balance out their losses in rural areas. But this is not the case in Iowa. Other than the Des Moines suburbs and a few areas along the Missouri River, the state is trending towards Republicans at a rapid clip. As Democrats continue to take down-ballot losses across the East, the future for Iowa Democrats looks increasingly bleak.

At the end of the day, Iowa Democrats were always on borrowed time. Densely rural with no large cities, Iowa was a ripe breeding ground for Republican gains. And with Democrats unable to claw back ground in Iowa’s 33 pivot counties, Iowa’s future as a Republican state looks all but assured.


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