Iowa’s rural-urban divide growing?

National media outlets made much of the gender gap that was evident in the offyear elections last week. That was undeniably a factor in national and statewide elections — women voted Democratic by a margin of 13 percentage points, while men tended to vote Republican. 

Donald Trump was supposedly a reason for the gap.

In Iowa, the same tendencies affected races here. But another factor appears to have been even more pronounced in the state: the rural-urban split. 

Maps of Iowa election results dramatically demonstrate that urban counties generally went Democratic while rural ones mostly went Republican.

That trend has been around for several decades in the state. But this year it was more pronounced and more decisive than ever.

Geographically, eastern Iowa is more populated than western Iowa, so from Des Moines eastward the Democrats pretty much did better than Republicans. The reverse was the case west of Des Moines.

Take the Iowa 3rd Congressional District as an example. 

It runs from Polk County southwest to Missouri and the Missouri River. Democratic House candidate Cindy Axne carried only one of the district’s counties: that was Polk County. Incumbent Republican David Young carried the other 15, including Pottawattamie, where Council Bluffs is located. 

But Polk was all Axne needed. 

Her margin there was 31,000 votes, more than enough to dominate the margins Young totaled in the other 15 counties. The total vote cast in the district was about 334,000.

The Iowa 1st Congressional District is another example. 

It covers roughly the northeast quadrant of the state. Democratic candidate Abby Finkenauer carried just four of the district’s 20 counties. But among those four were the district’s three most populated counties: Linn (Cedar Rapids), Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls) and Dubuque (Dubuque). 

Finkenauer rolled up enough votes in those four counties to outweigh the vote in the other 16. She carried the 1st District by some 16,000 votes to grab victory over incumbent Republican Rod Blum. (The fourth county that Finkenauer won was Winneshiek with its county seat of Decorah; Winneshiek went for her by about 700 votes.) Total vote in the 1st was about 322,000.

The vote in our own 4th Congressional District, the most rural of Iowa’s House districts, was equally instructive. 

Incumbent Republican Steve King won re-election by a margin of about 11,000 votes. He carried 33 of the district’s 39 counties in his victory, including Greene County.

But the other six counties of the district nearly voted him out. 

They included Woodbury (Sioux City), Webster (Fort Dodge), Story (Ames) and Cerro Gordo (Mason City and Clear Lake), the four largest counties in the district. The other two that voted for Democrat J.D. Scholten were Boone (Boone) and Floyd (Charles City). Total vote in the 4th was about 304,000.

(King barely carried Greene County, beating Scholten here by 55 votes, a margin of 1.3 percentage points.)

The race for governor saw an even more pronounced rural-urban split. 

Democrat Fred Hubbell carried just 11 of the state’s 99 counties, but his wins included most of Iowa’s largest counties: Polk, Scott, Black Hawk, Linn, Johnson, Story, Dubuque and Clinton. Only Polk and Story are in central Iowa; the others are all east of Des Moines.

Incumbent Republican Kim Reynolds won the race by about 39,000 votes. She won everything west of Interstate 35 and north of Highway 20.

Going west from Ames, each successive county gave Hubbell a smaller percentage of its vote: Story was highest, then Boone, then Greene, then Carroll, then Crawford, then Monona on the Missouri River.

As Iowa’s population hollows out in the rural areas and grows in the cities and suburbs, the long range prognosis is good for Democrats. In addition, aging populations in Iowa tend to favor Republicans, and long-term that’s not sustainable for the GOP either.

But if young people leave the state for environments, living conditions and salaries that they find more appealing, Democrats will also suffer.

Each party has a challenge. 

For Republicans, it’s how to combat the trend of urban and suburban areas to vote Democratic. What kinds of candidates and high-profile issues do they need to cut into the urban vote? Is the current situation sustainable for the GOP?

For Democrats, of course, it’s how to connect with small town and rural residents. Will the challenges of privately-managed Medicaid, meager mental health and education resources, and environmental challenges help Democrats win over more rural voters in the future?

Republicans totally dominate Iowa government at present. But preference polls show that Iowans want sustainable rural hospitals, clean water, clean air and more state resources rather than higher property taxes. 

Which party convinces voters it can provide those will no doubt improve its standing in the years to come.

Contact Us

Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161