As Iowa goes, so goes the nation – maybe

Nothing but corn as far as the eye can see Timothy M. Hagle, Author provided

Every four years Iowa begins the presidential nomination process with the Iowa Caucuses.

The start of caucus season is also the start of complaints by those who object to Iowa going first in the nomination process. Often such complaints center on the idea that Iowa is not sufficiently representative to deserve such a prominent role in the process.

More specifically, many of these complaints focus on the fact that Iowa has a smaller percentage of racial and ethnic minorities than many other states. Although it is certainly true that Iowa is less diverse in this sense than many other states that does not necessarily mean Iowa is insufficiently representative to hold the leadoff event in the presidential nomination process.

Just what makes one state representative of the rest of the country?

Despite the importance of racial and ethnic diversity, it is not clear that this is what should be of paramount importance in terms of determining some notion of representativeness.

A few years ago political scientists Michael Lewis-Beck and Peverill Squire wrote a short article entitled “Iowa: the most representative stat?” First they defined representativeness in descriptive terms. They then sought to address the question: “to what extent do the social, economic, and political characteristics of Iowa describe those of the nation itself?” To answer this question they examined 51 factors across a wide range of social, economic, political, and policy issues. For example, in addition to factors related to race and ethnicity they examined educational attainment, household income, unemployment rate, violent crime rate, energy consumption, seat belt use, and many others.

Their basic conclusion was that Iowa was representative. And to the extent Iowa was not representative in some respect, it was often because it had superior performance on some social (educational performance) or political (voter turnout) factor.

The significance (or not) of this year’s Senate race

Assuming for the sake of argument that Iowa is representative of the nation as a whole, what if anything does Iowa’s 2014 Senate race between Republican Joni Ernst, a State Senator and Lt Col in the Iowa National Guard, and Democrat Bruce Braley, a former trial lawyer and current Congressman, mean for the nation? On the whole, the answer is not much and we should not expect otherwise.

In the presidential nomination process each state’s voters have an opportunity to vote on essentially the same slate of candidates who are discussing the same basic issues. In sharp contrast, midterm elections tend to be more about local and state issues. The political parties, particularly the one that does not hold the White House, often try to “nationalize” midterm elections. This means finding one or more issues that are common across different races and states. Success in nationalizing the midterms can sometimes turn them into referenda where representativeness could play a larger role. The Republicans did this in 1994 with the Contract with America. The Democrats did it in 2006 with opposition to the war in Iraq.

Many Republicans expected Obamacare to be a nationalizing issue in the 2014 elections, but for the most part this has not happened. It is still an important issue in many races, including Iowa’s Senate race, but it just has not had the dominating effect many expected. Without a nationalizing issue it is difficult to characterize any particular race as a bellwether for the midterm elections.

Iowa, the swing state

On the other hand, Iowa is known as a swing state. Although it has gone for the Democrat in all but one of the last seven presidential elections, results for US Senate and various state-wide races are more evenly divided between the two parties.

Along these lines, until current US Senator Tom Harkin retires, he and Iowa’s other Senator, Chuck Grassley, will have the longest combined tenure of any state’s two Senators. What is remarkable about this fact is that the two are of different parties.

One reason for this political split is the composition of Iowa’s registered voters. Despite yearly variations, the number of registered Democrats and Republicans has been nearly equal for more than the last dozen years.

The voters of Iowa are independently minded. Timothy M. Hagle, Author provided

More important, during this same period independent voters have outnumbered those of either party. If a candidate wants to win a state-wide election in Iowa he or she must appeal to those independent voters.

Ideological balance

The extent to which Iowa leans less to one party or the other than many other states may be less an indicator of representativeness than one of balance.

Where will those independent voters in the middle of the political spectrum cast their ballots in Iowa’s 2014 Senate race? Just weeks before the election the answer is unclear as polls show the race a virtual tie.

A victory for either party in Iowa will not signal a major national mandate with far reaching implications. The political landscape changes far too quickly for there to be such long lasting effects from midterm elections with no major nationalizing issue.

Nevertheless, the ideological balance of Iowa’s voters means that candidates of both parties must always work hard to win over independents who are perfectly willing to vote for candidates of either party depending on the issues and quality of the candidates. Something worth remembering regardless of the representativeness of the state.