Although not high on the tourism list, Iowa is perhaps one of the most politically significant states in the Union. Landlocked in the Great Plains, the state showcases the working-class, Rust Belt shift to the right in the Trump Era. 

Early History – Gateway to the Great Plains 

For most of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, Iowa was untouched by Europeans, instead populated primarily by the Sauk, Meskwaki, and Illinois tribes. Some French contact is estimated to have taken place in 1673 during expeditions for the Mississippi River. Iowa was included in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Fort Madison was built on the river in 1808 to control trade and was a battleground in the War of 1812, to date Iowa’s only true military battle.  

Contact with the natives was friendly until 1829, when the federal government began removing the natives from their lands. This resulted in the Black Hawk Purchase, named for the chief of the Sauk people who peacefully left the lands but staged offensives against the settlers in 1832. The purchase opened up Iowa to settlers for the first time, which mostly brought French fur trappers, miners, and explorers. The city of Dubuque is named for the first settler, Julien Dubuque. Most arrivals to Iowa came from other Midwestern or Appalachian states. 

By the 1850s, the state was connected to New Orleans via steamboat on the Mississippi River. By 1860, Chicago was accessible by rail. With the state’s vibrant corn, wheat, beef, and pork industries, Iowa was now on the international trade map. 

Iowa became a state on December 28, 1846. 

Civil War and Industrial Revolution – A Populist Hotbed 

Iowa originally had different borders intended by the Northerns, who wanted to extend the state into Minnesota. Northerners capped Iowa at its relatively small size to make more “room” for free states with the existing territory. Bounded by the Mississippi River on the eastern border and the Missouri River on the west, Iowa is the only state to have two opposite borders defined by rivers.  

While Iowa did heavily back Lincoln (R-IL) and the newly-minted Republican Party, there was a strong “Copperhead” movement, a faction of the Democratic Party who opposed the Civil War and secession. While the state hosted no battles, Iowa did send 75,000 troops and significant food supplies to the eastern states. 

Iowa narrowly backed Democrats in its first two elections and then entered its longest Republican voting streak to date, backing every GOP candidate from 1856 to 1928, except 1912. Iowa’s southernmost counties were the most sympathetic to the Democratic Party, but mainly backed the GOP by thinner margins than other counties in the state. Iowa’s Mississippi River counties became much more Democratic as the Industrial Revolution continued, as the Populist Era reached its height in the end of the 1800s. While Republicans won consistently, they did so by thin margins. 

Iowa became a hotbed of progressivism during the turn of the century, as the governor at the time broke up monopolies, instituted pure food and drug laws, and abolished corporate campaign contributions. During the same time period, Iowa became a hotbed of European immigration, whom the state welcomed openly. Progressive Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette took second place in Iowa in 1924. 

After Republicans took advantage of the Panic of 1893 being blamed on Democrats – namely President Grover Cleveland (D-NY) – they began to win by increasingly large margins. The only hiccup in the GOP steamroll starting in 1896 was Woodrow Wilson’s (D-NJ) 1912 win due to a vote split created by Theodore Roosevelt (R-NY), whose Bull Moose Progressive party took second place in Iowa that year. Roosevelt split the Republican vote with William Howard Taft (R-OH), handing the overall election to Wilson in a landslide. 

During Industrialization, river towns became manufacturing hubs. Cedar Rapids is the home of Quaker Oats. The railroad industry demanded coal, which spawned 240 coal mines in Iowa by 1919, which produced over 8 million tons of coal per year. In 1920, Warren Harding (R-OH) would carry the state with almost 71% of the vote, which is to date the best performance for any presidential candidate in the Hawkeye State. He is one of just two presidential candidates – the other being Dwight Eisenhower (R-KS) – to sweep all ninety-nine counties. 

World War I put Iowa at the front of food production nationally, but after the war, wartime farm subsidies dried up, leaving Iowa mostly excluded from the Roaring Twenties boom. This began Iowa’s slow change of preference for the Democrats, as farmers entered the Great Depression worse off than the rest of the country. While Iowa backed Franklin Roosevelt (D-NY) in 1932 and 1936 by wide margins, it was one of several Midwestern states to return to the Republican fold for his latter two elections in 1940 and 1944. FDR’s brand of New Deal economics put in place supply caps, which included destruction of crops and livestock to increase demand and regulate prices. The farmers, with their disapproval of FDR’s waste combined with their isolationist tendencies regarding foreign policy, put Iowa back into the Republican fold. 

Harry Truman (D-MO) would carry Iowa narrowly in 1948, followed by two landslide wins by Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Richard Nixon (R-CA) would carry the state handily in 1960, but in 1964, Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) would deliver the best performance for a presidential Democrat in Iowa’s history. Iowa would continue voting for Republicans from 1968 until 1984. Ronald Reagan’s (R-CA) forty-nine-state sweep in 1948 would see Iowa clock in at just an eight-point margin for him, an underwhelming victory. The Farm Crisis of the 1980s decimated small towns and family farms and was a point of contention for Reagan and would lead to the state flipping for Michael Dukakis (D-MA) in 1988 against then-Vice President George H. W. Bush (R-TX). Iowa would be one of ten Democratic states in that election, and the second-best state for Dukakis behind Rhode Island. 

Geography – Four Corners 

Iowa’s geography can be best described by its four quadrantal Congressional districts: 

CD-01: Southeast Iowa; includes liberal Johnson County, Iowa’s only consistently blue county – that is still the bluest today. Home to suburbs and working-class towns. Home to University of Iowa and Iowa City’s Johnson County, not far from the state’s eastern border. Since 1856, it has only voted Republican twelve times. 

CD-02: Northeast Iowa; includes Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, home to smaller, blue-collar counties that backed Obama twice before swapping to Trump. Home also to Howard County, which saw the largest swing of any county in the entire nation from 2012 to 2016. 

CD-03: Southwest Iowa; the most suburban of the four districts, includes the capital city of Des Moines. Although traditionally Republican, about half of the population here as a Bachelor’s degree. 

CD-04: Northwest Iowa; the most Republican of the four. In close statewide races, this ethnically Dutch district keeps Iowa red.  

Current Political Leanings – A Meteoric Shift 

The last seven elections somewhat undermine Iowa’s lifelong political volatility. It would back every Democrat from 1988 until 2012, except 2004. Bill Clinton’s (D-AR) 1992 and 1996 victories saw the vast majority of the counties vote blue. George Bush (R-TX) would narrowly lose to Al Gore (D-TN) in 2000 – by just 4,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast – but would narrowly flip it in 2004 by a similar margin. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) national landslide saw Iowa go with it; he won the state by just shy of ten points. While Mitt Romney (R-UT) would fare better in 2012, Obama still won Iowa by more than five points, with much of the eastern part of the state’s rural and suburban counties backing him. 

Donald Trump’s 2016 Iowa win is indicative of not only the Midwest or Rust Belt abandonment of the Democratic Party, but one of working-class and blue-collar voters altogether. Trump would win Iowa by almost ten points, when Republicans had not solidly won the state since 1984. Howard County – which is 98% white – went from backing Obama by twenty points in 2012, to Trump by a similar margin in 2016, the most dramatic swing of any county nationwide that year. This challenges many claims of election interference, voter suppression, third-party spoiling for Hillary Clinton, and racist reactionary politics. This trend was mirrored across the entire Upper Midwest that year, although not as dramatically as it was in Howard County. 

Polling showed a tight race in 2020, but Iowa backed Trump by an almost identical margin again, despite Trump’s trade wars with China that hurt the state’s cornerstone soybean industry. 

Iowa was last governed by a Democrat in 2011. The GOP holds both U.S. Senate seats, with a Democrat having last held one in 2015, and having last held both in 1979. 

In 2022, Iowa ousted their lone Democratic House member and their Attorney General, the longest-served AG in U.S history, also a Democrat. This is the first time since the 1940s that Democrats have had no Congressional representation from Iowa, solidifying the state’s shift to the Republican Party. 

Going forward, Democrats will have to do a complete turnaround on economic policy to be able to compete in Iowa again. Although the state isn’t overwhelmingly socially conservative, Iowa is still right-of-center on most issues, making this the quickest-turned swing state in the current political era.   

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Matt Meduri has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Messenger Papers since August 2023. He is the author of the America the Beautiful, Civics 101, and This Week Today columns. Matt graduated from St. Joseph's University, Patchogue, in 2022, with a degree in Human Resources and worked for his family's IT business for three years. He's also a musician and composer with his sights set on the film industry. Matt has traveled all around the U.S. and enjoys cooking, photography, and a good cup of coffee.