Iowa now the best bellwether state

Josh Goodman alerted me to this piece he wrote for "Move Over Missouri, Iowa Is the New Bellwether State."

John McCain appears likely to take Missouri's 11 electoral votes, which would be the first time since 1956 that the state did not vote for the winner of the presidential election.

However, Goodman argues that Missouri has not been the best bellwether for the last few cycles. Even though it voted for the winner each time through 2004, Missouri has steadily trended more Republican in relation to the national popular vote.

Goodman then lists "the five states that have come closest to matching the national popular vote in each election since 1988." (Click here to see which other states made these lists.) Guess what he found?

Iowa is the only state that has been one of the top five bellwethers in four of the last five elections. The only year that it doesn't make the list is 1996, when it was sixth -- and only off by 1.82 points.

So, in every presidential election from 1992 through 2008, Iowa's popular vote margin was within 2.55 percentage points of the national popular vote result. That is an impressive performance as a bellwether. [...]

None of that guarantees that "as Iowa goes, so goes the nation" in 2012. Four years out, elections are never that predictable. But, just from the numbers, if there's one state that we can expect to be a microcosm of the nation in 2012, it's Iowa.

It's interesting that Iowa's vote has tracked so closely to the national popular vote, even though Iowa's population is relatively unrepresentative demographically (96 percent white and with a higher proportion of senior citizens than most states).

Anyone have a theory to explain this phenomenon?

Tags: 2008 elections, Iowa, president, presidential election (all tags)



Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Other than being the best place to live, work, and raise a family, I don't have any theories. ;)

by danIA 2008-11-19 02:06PM | 0 recs
having moved back after 15 years out of state

I get your drift!

by desmoinesdem 2008-11-19 02:13PM | 0 recs
I dunno...

I'm still having a hard time deciding whether California or Nevada is the best state to live. Hmmm, perfect weather or the land of nickel machines & fabulous shows? ;-)

by atdleft 2008-11-19 02:40PM | 0 recs
I could never handle the traffic

in CA. It's so rare that I need to drive more than 15 minutes to get anywhere.

Also, I like four seasons and good public schools.

Sometimes I'm surprised by the number of people I meet who moved to Iowa from the east or west costs. They get twice the house for half the money, and if one partner wants to stay home with young kids, they can afford to do that.

by desmoinesdem 2008-11-19 04:02PM | 0 recs
Personal perspective on IA vs. MO

I grew up in Iowa and live in Missouri now, so I have a somewhat personal perspective on this.

First off, I agree with other commenters that the notion of "bellwether states" is questionable. Statistically, it's inevitable that some states will go with the winner more often that others, but their continuing to do so into the future may largely be a matter of luck.

Beyond that, the two states are demographically distinct. Both have conservative large rural regions balancing against more liberal urban areas, but in Missouri the urban/rural divide is like a chasm. The urban areas in Missouri are larger (Kansas City/St. Louis vs. Des Moines/Iowa City), yet even so the state as a whole is more conservative, mostly because the rural areas of Missouri are more like Mississippi than Minnesota. Missouri was not part of the old Confederacy, but was a slave state. (The Dred Scott decision was handed down in the old St. Louis court house across from the Arch.)

Beyond that, I think Iowa is whiter and better-educated than Missouri, plus it's already had a major exposure to the candidates through the early caucuses. Last of all, the approach to politics is more communal in Iowa, given that caucusing is inherently a public process. I remember when, here in Missouri, I first came across the attitude of "I don't tell strangers my political preferences," which I found bizarre (politics, after all, is a communal process where we come together to make political decisions; making it into a private thing left my Iowa sensibilities nonplussed).

During the past election I worked pretty hard to try to turn Missouri blue. Alas, it all seems to have been for naught (though we did boot Baby Blunt out of the Governor's office). Maybe next time.

by jimBOB 2008-11-19 04:52PM | 0 recs
Re: Personal perspective on IA vs. MO

Iowa is DEFINITELY whiter and more educated than MO.  I don't think the Arch was there when Dred Scott was handed down though.  ;)

IA was one of just 3 states to switch its vote from 2000 to 04--unrepresentative of most states, or representative of both races' closeness?  It voted for Gore in 2000 when he "lost" (for bellwether purposes, how do you score 2000?).  It also was one of just 11 (I think) states to vote for Dukakis in 1988.  He got 111 electoral votes, Bush 426.  Which states are the best bellwethers depends greatly on how you define that status.  In a winner take all electoral system, does it matter how close you are, or just who wins the state?  I've always thought OH to be a better bellwether than MO, based on its track record of voting for the winner.  It's much more representative--racially, economically, Ohio's demographics closely mirror national ones, at least until a few years ago.  It used to be average in almost every way, which was why Columbus was a test market for all kinds of new products; if we liked them, they got sold everywhere.  If they didn't sell in Columbus, they were nixed.  Ohio went the wrong way 1 election after MO, voting for Nixon in 1960.  Since 1900, I think it has the best record.

Buckeye = bellwether. And they're going to kick Michigan's ass too.

I believe the most Republican state in presidential elections has been Nebraska, though OK and UT have given more of their vote to GOP candidates lately.  Excluding DC, which has always voted Democratic but couldn't vote for president until 1968, the longest Democratic streak is MN, which hasn't voted Republican since 1972.

Which state is the most contrarian??

by Sandwich Repairman 2008-11-20 12:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Personal perspective on IA vs. MO

I don't think the Arch was there when Dred Scott was handed down though.

True dat. I should have said "...the Court House which is now across from the Arch." If you take the tram to the top of the Arch you get a real nice view of the Court House.

by jimBOB 2008-11-20 07:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Personal perspective on IA vs. MO

if you don't puke on the way.  ;)

by Sandwich Repairman 2008-11-20 09:48PM | 0 recs
with respect to the EC,

Ohio is the still the best. Electoral votes are what determines the winner, and Ohio hasn't been wrong since 1960. Iowa did give Dukakis a landslide win in 1988. But I see the point, Iowa does tend to mirror the national popular vote very well, and the winner of the popular vote wins the election 93% of the time(52/56=.93).

by Lakrosse 2008-11-19 02:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Although you didn't focus on this, but I find 1956 as also an instructive point. While I don't recall whether it was 1954 or 1956 when the Democratic Congress became a southern majority, which flipped to a Republican southern majority in 1994. But still a southern majority.  In any event, whether '54 or '56, '56 would have been the first presidential election when that fact became true.  Thus, in this era, Missouri's southern-ness became a reliable predictor in a nation ruled by a southern majority and southern politics.

I also find it interesting that Iowa's reliability has been on the increase since '88.  The "northern" midwest has been more of a locus of power of late.  That was confirmed by the nomination of a midwesterner who was capable of winning Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana.  

In a sense, I think this loss for Missouri now indicates that 2008 WAS, in fact, a realigning election.

by AmericanJedi 2008-11-19 02:39PM | 0 recs
Yep, The South...

Is no longer the nation's political power base. Before Obama, no Northern Democrat could win the Presidency since JFK in 1960. Before 2006, no Democratic majority in Congress was possible without a strong Southern showing. But now, the Democratic Party looks to be viable without needing The South.

Sure, it's good that we can win Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida while being competitive in Georgia. In fact, this helps us solidify our majority. Still, it's nice that we're winning these states precisely because they're "less Southern" (meaning less racial tension, more Northern transplants) & it's good that we no longer have to pretend being socially conservative to win national elections.

by atdleft 2008-11-19 02:49PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

That's weird though, since those Midwestern states have all been steadily losing House seats, while the South has been gaining.  Ohio once had 26 EVs; it's looking at 18 after the next census.  The idea that GA and NC would have more votes than MI and NJ, or that FL would surpass NY, would've been unthinkable not that long ago.

by Sandwich Repairman 2008-11-20 12:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Well, Iowans have disproportionate influence in deciding the two major party candidates.  So in many cases one or both of the candidates were pre-screened for Iowan acceptability months before the election.

by Dreorg 2008-11-19 02:45PM | 0 recs
What's your theory?

I'm curious to hear desmoinesdem's own theory about all this, having (I assume) firsthand knowledge about Iowa and its electorate.

by Sieglinde 2008-11-19 02:47PM | 0 recs
I honestly don't know

Compared to other states that are this white, Iowa is not nearly so Republican.

I guess we are in that "sweet spot" of a balance between mainline Christians and evangelicals--states that lean heavily in one direction or another are more likely to be reliably R or D.

by desmoinesdem 2008-11-19 04:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

I'd guess it has some relation to Iowa's role in the primary. Whether it's just that more Iowans are paying better attention or something else, I don't know.

by mhojo 2008-11-19 02:59PM | 0 recs
I still think Ohio is a better bellwether

as its gone on since 1964, when it went with LBJ, and hasn't once strayed from the winner. Since 1896, Ohio has only stayed from the winner in 1944, and 1960, which is a longer record than Missouri. When Obama won Ohio, I knew the election was over.

by Lakrosse 2008-11-19 03:03PM | 0 recs
I think I know the secret.

The entire concept of Bellwether states is complete bullshit. There are decent ways to predict a winner, but going on one particular state's polls is an arbitrarily silly measure.

by vcalzone 2008-11-19 03:56PM | 0 recs
Re: I think I know the secret.

That is an entirely reasonable, plausible argument.  But since I'm from Ohio, I want bragging rights.

by Sandwich Repairman 2008-11-20 01:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Besides, we all know Minnesota is truly the best state to live in.

Why does Minnesota exist?  To protect Canada from Iowa!  ( I got a million of 'em!)

Truth said, I would rather associate with Iowa and even Wisconsin (!) than with S.C. or Alabama...and that is saying something! ;)

by Hammer1001 2008-11-19 04:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Do you know why the trees in Iowa lean north?

Because Minnesota sucks, and Missouri blows.


by IowaMike 2008-11-19 07:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now 20% off
Why does NJ have all the garbage and CA has all the lawyers?
NJ got first pick.
by Sandwich Repairman 2008-11-20 01:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Well educated, informed, and active electorate. That could be why....

by IowaMike 2008-11-19 07:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

interesting post.

by spamohan 2008-11-19 09:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Iowa now the best bellwether state

Why?  Chance.  If you have 50 states then there is always going to be one you can pick out ex post that happened to be close to the average recently.

The quote in the post is mistaken in the last sentence.  Iowa is NOT a microsm.  It is not representative of the country at all. That means any "theory" anyone comes up with is just imposing imaginary order on what is really statistical chance.

by sck5 2008-11-20 02:04AM | 0 recs
Name this movie

"You know, Nietzsche says, 'Out of chaos, comes order.'"

"Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard."

by Sandwich Repairman 2008-11-20 09:50PM | 0 recs


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