Normally in any given state we like to focus on a handful of the key populous counties that will swing this year’s election. The Des Moines Register lays out all 12 counties in Iowa that are Battlegrounds this year including this super-cool interactive map with voting results of every county in Iowa:
The Des Moines Register examined a dozen swing counties that have seesawed from Republican to Democratic, home to ticket-splitting voters that both presidential campaigns desperately want to win over this fall. Polling data for Iowa is scarce, but a rolling average shows a stubborn tie between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney. Such a tight race means a cache of votes here or there will save or kill a campaign. Both sides see opportunity in Iowa’s rural counties this cycle — Democrats in independent female voters and Republicans in white men without college degrees. The unemployment rate in Iowa’s 12 hottest swing counties ranges from 3.7 percent (Carroll) to 7.5 percent (Hamilton). Across the board, county leaders agree, the shaky state of the national economy is Obama’s biggest vulnerability.
And as Iowa looks at a stunted crop this fall, if not crop failure, voters will be focused on the drought’s impact on their local economies, and the government’s response.
This cycle, the GOP feels confident Mitt Romney will win many 2008 Obama counties — such as those he won by 1 point or less, including Warren, Hamilton, Iowa, Hardin and Franklin. Democratic strategists see gold in Muscatine, Wapello, Clinton and Des Moines counties — all fervently Democratic. The Democrats have opened offices there this cycle, as well as in all the bigger urban counties, where Obama will need to pile up huge surpluses to offset less favorable counties. Not every county in purple Iowa is competitive. Some could be called right now: Johnson, Des Moines and Lee will be safely in Obama’s column on Nov. 6, and Sioux, Lyon and Osceola will be safely in Romney’s. But some, like the dozen key “swingers” featured here, shift from D to R depending on the candidate, pet issues, hot local races and attention from the campaigns.
Although each county listed is hotly contested, not everyone would be considered a Battleground county under the auspices by which I refer to them. Battleground counties, for our purposes, are both hotly contested counties and are heavily populated enough to swing the electoral balance in the state. For example, Scott County alone had nearly the same aggregate vote total in 2008 (85,292 votes cast for both Obama and McCain) as the bottom 9 counties combined (84,904 votes cast). So Scott County is clearly a Battleground County for our purposes while Greene County (4,720 votes cast) would not be. But even though not every county fits my definition, in this closely contested election, each is clearly a 2012 battleground as Jennifer Jacobs tremendously demonstrates. Here is the county by county breakdown reordered by aggregate vote total:
Scott — 85,292 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 9 points, Dem by 4 points, Dem by 3 points, Dem by 15 points.
- Scott is a Democratic county and a big union county. But Branstad has never lost here, and Romney beat his GOP rivals here in the caucuses.
- Iowa’s east coast counties — Scott, Muscatine, Clinton and Jackson among them — figured prominently in the Bush-Gore contest. Scott is an expensive battleground, where campaigns are forced by the border-state TV market to spend money advertising to already-decided Illinois.
- Obama is amassing a battalion here, made up of neighborhood team leaders and support volunteers, who are called “core team members.”
- Scott is more competitive than Democratic strategists might like to admit. The county government has a GOP lean. Four of the five countywide supervisors are Republicans, and so are two of the three state senators.
- Scott is also GOP congressional challenger John Archer’s best bet for a strong showing. And Romney’s state chairman lives in Scott, where he’s leading a strong organization.
Woodbury — 44, 202 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 2 points, GOP by 3 points, GOP by 2 points, GOP by 1 point.
- This is an urban river county where three states come together, and voters worry about competing with neighbors for jobs. Both Nebraska and South Dakota have lower income taxes, but Iowa has a more favorable sales tax.
- It’s in the heart of Iowa’s red west, but unlike Pottawattamie to the south, it’s an outpost of urban Democrats.
- Democrats recently opened a campaign headquarters here — in a Hispanic neighborhood in Sioux City. Woodbury Republicans opened theirs with Sam Clovis, a popular conservative radio host, officiating.
- If congressional challenger Christie Vilsack can make a run of it here, her influence will energize the Democrats, politics watchers said.
- Independent voters — a third of the electorate — will be the deciders this year, said Linda Holub, co-chair of the Woodbury GOP. Health care and federal debt top the issues list.
Warren — 24,443 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 13 points, GOP by 1 point, GOP by 6 points, Dem by 1 point.
- Warren is among the 20 counties that Bush carried eight years ago but that Obama nabbed four years ago.
- Labor, especially the UAW because of the president’s action on the auto bailout, is a big part of the political equation here, as well as in Marshall and Scott, Democrats said. If union members sat on the sidelines while Democratic Gov. Chet Culver lost re-election in 2010, they are fully engaged now.
- “I think people are feeling more optimistic about what’s going on around the country,” said Ann Montgomery, the Democratic chairwoman. “We’ve seen a lot more enthusiasm recently — we’re getting people that want to volunteer.”
- The tea party, especially, is thriving. In one open Iowa House seat, tea party candidate Steve McCoy is up against Scott Ourth, a Democrat running for the second time. The sheriff’s race, an open seat for the first time in 30 years, could draw attention, too.
Marshall — 18,301 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 10 points, GOP by 3 points, GOP by 1 point, Dem by 9 points.
- One of the bigger employers is the Iowa Veterans Home, but voters here don’t have a particularly heightened sensitivity to veterans issues, party officials said. There’s also a pork meatpacking plant, and a Lennox furnace manufacturer, whose unionized workers are very active in Democratic Party politics here.
- Labor unions and Hispanic voters could sway the vote in this county, where the service-oriented workforce is sometimes stretched between two jobs. Marshall is home to about 7,000 Latinos, 17 percent of the population. The Obama campaign is running a targeted Latino outreach program, directed by a full-time staffer. Aides note that polls show Hispanic voters support the 2010 federal health care law that Obama championed, which expands health insurance coverage for an estimated 9 million Latinos nationally.
- But the majority of Iowans oppose the health care law, and Latinos are only 4.9 percent of the county voting population. (Polk has the largest Hispanic population, followed by Woodbury and Scott.)
- Among the foreign-born residents in Marshall County, 71 percent are not U.S. citizens and are unable to cast a vote.
Bremer — 12,681 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 8 points, GOP by 5 points, GOP by 5 points, Dem by 9 points.
- Bremer politics are a microcosm of what you might expect in a suburban area, but with more of an ag focus. Some of its residents are Waterloo-Cedar Falls workers, including UAW members from John Deere, said the county’s GOP chairman, Austin Lorenzen. Also central to the political dynamic is Wartburg College, where student voters helped lift Obama to a 9-point win four years ago.
- Bremer is home to many of the kind of rural, working-class voters with whom Obama has struggled nationwide.
- In towns like Sumner, Tripoli and Readlyn, all tied tightly to agriculture, the Obama campaign is talking up the president’s investments in clean energy such as ethanol and wind, three new trade agreements signed this year, and a focus on veterans health care as soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Democrats believe they have a hidden weapon on rural issues: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a popular former governor who has campaigned with Obama in Iowa.
- Romney won Bremer in the GOP caucuses, beating Rick Santorum, who was viewed as more staunchly conservative.
Carroll County — 10,244 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 11 points, GOP by 4 points, GOP by 10 points, Dem by 4 points
- In 2004, Carroll rewarded George W. Bush with a 10-point victory, then did a U-turn four years ago
- Catholics might be Iowa’s ultimate swing voters, and Carroll is a predominantly Catholic county
- Major issues: same-sex marriage, HHS mandate infringing on religious liberty, abortion
- All are factors, said Democratic chairwoman Phyllis Blanchard. “But what’s most on people’s minds is the drought and the weather and how it’s going to affect the ag industry and what kind of support is received,” she said
Cedar — 9,510 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 12 points, Dem by a few votes, GOP by 1 point, Dem by 9 points.
- Cedar is the only bellwether county in Iowa that has mirrored the margins of statewide presidential results for the last three cycles. It’s most famous because it was the only county in the nation that ended up precisely tied on election night in 2000. Democrat Al Gore won by two votes once all the absentee ballots were counted.
- A short commute from Iowa City, fast-growing Cedar County is actually light red, save for one precinct. The West Branch area is an alpha zone for Democrats. While a few precincts are very red, the bulk of Cedar voters are GOP-leaners prone to ticket splitting, politics watchers say. Voters see nothing odd about loving both Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley.
- Cedar has a Republican heritage: Ronald Reagan’s father, Jack Reagan, lived in Bennett, and the county is home to the Herbert Hoover presidential museum. Longtime GOP officials, including state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, have created safe seats.
- One of Iowa’s five major wind-related factories, Acciona, is in Cedar County. Not far from its plant, the turbine manufacturer is putting up two of the largest towers in the country. The open house to celebrate is later this year.
- “I think Romney’s coming out against the wind tax credit could possibly — possibly — affect some swing votes here,” Kaufmann said. What’s certain, he said, is that if either presidential candidate appears even a bit weak on farm subsidies and the federal crop insurance program, he does so at his own risk. Even highly conservative farmers are hypersensitive on that topic as their crops burn up in cloudless sunshine.
Jefferson — 8,394 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 1 point, GOP by 5 points, Dem by 10 points, Dem by 20 points.
- The GOP fell 56 votes short of victory in 1996, when 1,574 voters backed the Natural Law Party candidate.
- Jefferson is Iowa’s New Age capital, where the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi set up his university, and peace-seeking people built a mini city where Sanskrit is the official language, and the sale of nonorganic food is prohibited.
- Jefferson County is susceptible to third-party influence. It’s conceivable supporters could try to secure a third-party spot on the ballot for Ron Paul. Even without his name as a choice, he will be a factor here, stripping a chunk of votes from Romney and some from Obama as disaffected voters stay home, politics watchers said. Paul won Jefferson in the GOP caucuses this year and in 2008; Branstad lost here in 2010.
Hamilton — 8,010 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 5 points, GOP by 7 points, GOP by 6 points, Dem by 1 point.
- Union members scattered after appliance maker Electrolux shuttered its factory, knocking out 14 percent of Hamilton County’s jobs. The loss left Democrats short a voting bloc and key organizing force.
- Economically, Webster City and its surrounding areas are doing better than expected — the county has long had an effective focus on local economic development and tourism, several politics watchers said.
- But many houses linger on the market. Community college support is a pet issue here, with so many laid-off Electrolux workers in school learning new trades.
- As for the presidential race, “I think it could go either way,” Duffy said. “Perhaps the driving force, even more so than the presidency, will be the Vilsack-King election. I think that will really motivate people on both sides.”
- Hamilton, Greene, Carroll and Crawford counties are all in the new 4th Congressional District, and strong campaigns are boosting numbers for both Democrats and Republicans in western Iowa.
Crawford — 7,060 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 7 points, GOP by 10 points, GOP by 10 points, Dem by 5 points.
- The Tyson beef slaughter plant in Crawford County is on life support, with possible closure looming. Tyson put the workforce of 400 on notice in March that a shutdown might come next year.
- Crawford is one of the rural swing counties in Iowa’s GOP-heavy 5th Congressional District that Obama flipped from Republican to Democratic four years ago. What happens this year is unpredictable, but Obama is at risk of losing the county, politics watchers say.
- There’s a strain of socially conservative voters here. Pamphlets with pictures of fetuses show up on car windshields around election time. But there’s also a batch of working-class Democrats and a substantial Hispanic population.
- A feisty local race will affect this presidential election cycle, said Democratic Chairman Martin Peterson. State Rep. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, faces a challenge from Democrat Kasey Friedrichsen, who lost her job when the Branstad administration ordered the shutdown of 37 state workforce development offices. Schultz is favored by Steve King Republicans. Friedrichsen is backed by AFSCME, “so money’s coming in,” Peterson said.
Winnebago — 5,984 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 8 points, Dem by 1 point, GOP by 8 points, Dem by 9 points.
- If Gov. Terry Branstad’s home county seems conservative, that’s because Republicans here are more open about party affiliation, while Democrats tend to stay in the closet.
- Waldorf College in Forest City was sold to a for-profit organization in Alabama in 2009, and the city has lost some of its small liberal arts college town feel, residents say.
- The biggest industry is the Winnebago Industries RV manufacturer, which is actually over the line in Hancock County. The area is still hurting from mass layoffs there that began in the fourth quarter of 2008, before Obama took office.
Greene — 4,720 total votes for Obama/McCain in 2008
- Trend in last four presidential races: Dem by 14 points, Dem by just 19 votes, GOP by 3 points, Dem by just 22 votes.
- Two popular lifelong Greene County residents want to be sheriff. This race, likely to be more about personalities and friendships than political parties, will spur turnout even if the presidential race doesn’t, party leaders predicted.
- Passion is low for Obama, who barely won the county four years ago, said Nicole Schilling, co-chairwoman of the county Democrats.
- Republicans are hardly enthralled with Romney, who lost Greene County to Santorum (first place) and Newt Gingrich (second place) in the caucuses this year, according to Jayne Tiffany, a former GOP chairwoman.
- In Greene County, 98 percent of the population is white, one resident in every five is 65 or over, and agriculture and manufacturing are king. Factories make John Deere planters, weightlifting machines, geothermal furnaces, gymnastics equipment and garbage trucks.
- Unemployment is 5.4 percent, slightly above the state’s 5.2 percent. Closure of the Electrolux plant in Jefferson last year left a dent.