Election Day Political Opposites in Iowa

You can make a loop in Iowa’s northwest corner and never leave serious Republican country.

From Lyon to Osceola counties, south into O’Brien County you go. You skip quickly through Cherokee County, where only 53 percent of the voters supported John McCain in 2008, and start circling back to Plymouth County and, finally, Sioux County.

Sioux County, the geographical connector for these counties, is the most Republican county in group, and in Iowa.

Four of every five voters in 2008 cast ballots for John McCain, leaving only 20 percent for Barack Obama.

“It won’t be 20 percent this time,” Mark Lundberg, chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party, said.

On the other side of Iowa, Democrats in Johnson County gear up for an Election Day ritual – supporting Democratic candidates for office. Johnson County is the political polar opposite of Sioux County. That seven of every 10 voters in the 2008 election supported Obama is a testament to the county’s rank as Iowa’s most Democratic.

“It’s probably ingrained,” Terry Dahms, chairman of the Johnson County Democratic Party said.

The only political similarity between Sioux and Johnson counties is that they consistently follow a way of life in their counties that leads the great majority to vote for one political party without fail. They are the most politically homogenous counties in Iowa going into Election Day 2012 when it comes to supporting their favorite political party.

Nov. 7 update: Romney carried Sioux County with 83.3 percent of the vote; Obama got 15.6 percent in the unofficial totals from Election Day. Obama carried Johnson County with 66.6 percent of the vote; Romney got 31.3 percent.

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Here’s how Democratic Johnson County is: it cast 58 percent of its votes during the famous 1972 Richard Nixon landslide victory over George McGovern.

John Kerry scooped up 64 percent of Johnson County’s votes in 2004 and Al Gore received 59 percent in 2000. Gore had to contend with liberal favorite and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who collected 6 percent of the county’s presidential votes in 2000.

Dahms said the presence of the University of Iowa and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is likely the largest factor in the county’s political leanings, bringing many young people, who he said tend to be more liberal and educated, to the area.

One-half of the county’s residents have a college degree. “Iowa City and Johnson County, as a whole, is very well educated,” Dahms said. “So they, I think, have a better grasp and understanding of the issues and have sort of done their own research and sort of understand what's true and what's not and what's important and what's not.”

He said Johnson County residents care deeply about issues and often vote to ensure social justice and equality for everyone.

Voters line up at Iowa City's Old Capitol Town Centre in October to cast ballots early in the 2012 general election. (IowaWatch photo by Lyle Muller)

The county is so liberal, it rarely elects a Republican candidate to county office. Dating back to 1970, the county has only elected two Republicans to local government in partisan races — former Johnson County Sheriff Gary Hughes and former Clerk of Court Mary Conklin. Forty-four percent of the county’s voters are registered Democrats.

Though Dahms said there hasn’t been a successful moderate or Republican candidate in Johnson County for some time, he said that even Democratic candidates tend to act more moderately once they’re in office in Johnson County. “You may run for office as a Democrat but I think you know once you're in office you represent everyone, you know, Democrats or Republicans.”

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In Sioux County, Lundberg, a financial adviser from Orange City, expects President Obama to get only about 13 percent of the county’s vote this year, although his counterpart, county Democratic Chairwoman Kim Van Es expects improvement from 2008.

History backs Lundberg’s prediction. Four years before a Democratic wave helped send Obama to the presidency, Democratic challenger John Kerry collected only 13.6 percent of Sioux County’s vote. Al Gore fared a little better in 2000, with 14.6 percent.

An atmosphere that included a credit crisis and war fatigue worked against Republicans in 2008, Lundberg said. “It was a perfect storm for Democrats,” he said.

This time around, Lundberg sees a perfect storm for Republicans upset with Obama’s record on spending, fighting poverty and welfare and creating a strong business climate.

Seven of every 10 registered voters in Sioux County are Republican; Democrats have 8 percent of the county's registered voters.

Folks in Sioux County prefer to take care of themselves, without excessive government intervention, Lundberg said. Huge outlays of federal money? “It just doesn’t play well in our communities,” he said. “It’s not seen as a plus to rely on government all your life.”

Democrats don’t run for public office in Sioux County, although a few have tried as Republicans. “We just don’t have a lot of disagreements,” Lundberg said.

Mark Lundberg, Sioux County Republican Party chairman

Finding the roots of this conservative bent requires little more than going to the nearest church. Church and family are big in Sioux County. The county’s predominant religions are the conservative Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America but other Christian religions are there, too.

The county is 97.5 percent white, and nearly nine of every 10 residents have lived in the same house since 2006, the latest U.S. Census data show. It has an ample selection of private religious-based schools and a conservative mindset that prompts most businesses to close on Sundays.

Van Es said she respects the locals for their views because those views are based on a faith commitment. However, “there are people who think that if you are a Christian, you automatically are going to vote Republican," she said. "I’m a Democrat largely because of my faith commitment."

Van Es said Sioux County has closet Democrats who are afraid to display campaign signs for fear of losing business, and a letter to the editor can result in unsolicited Republican literature.

Kim Van Es, Sioux County Democratic Party chairwoman

“We haven’t had the strongest organization in the last few years,” she said. “For us to run a candidate for county office would be an exercise in futility.”

Democrats in the county focus on electing candidates for higher office, such as congressional candidate Christie Vilsack, Van Es said. They are concerned about immigration policy, those less well-off and the federal deficit, especially as it relates to defense spending, she said.

Business has been good in Sioux County. Farmland was valued at $9,419 an acre last year, second only to O’Brien County’s $9,513 an acre, and businesses such as the home grown Diamond Vogel paint help boost the local economy. The median household income was $51,557 during the 2010 census, higher than the state’s $48,872. The 6.4 percent poverty rate was far below the state’s 11.6 percent.

Twenty-two percent of the county’s residents have at least a bachelor’s degree; the state rate was 24.5 percent in the 2010 census. It is among people with degrees that you find many of the county’s Democrats, particularly on the faculty at the county’s two Christian-based colleges – Northwestern College in Orange City, which is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America and where Van Es teaches English, and Dordt College in Sioux Center. Dordt is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church.

The federal government spent $5,850 per capita in Sioux County in 2011, an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau shows. That is far lower than the $9,315 per capita at the state level.

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It is far lower than Johnson County’s $8,065 per capita, too. Unlike Sioux County, Johnson County does not have a government town like Iowa City.

The median household income in Johnson County is $51,380, census data from 2010 show. The county’s poverty rate, influenced by the abundance of college students who are not earning large, full-time wages, is 18.2 percent.

While political experts analyze data like that to determine how and why voters in one geographical area lean one way and others in a different area lean the other, one thing is certain this Election Day: Iowa’s status as a swing state in the presidential election will not hinge on Sioux or Johnson counties.

More likely, counties like Woodbury, Washington, Decatur, Iowa and Greene will help determine who is president. Go back four years for the reason why. One-half of a percentage point or less separated the vote in those counties between Obama and McCain.