Iowa, once a model swing state, fell so hard for Donald Trump four years ago that 2020 seemed like a foregone conclusion.
But in a sign of how Trump’s reelection prospects have weakened across the country, even the heartland may be having second thoughts.
Since the start of the year, Democrats in Iowa have added about twice as many active voters to their rolls as Republicans, nudging ahead in total registration for the first time in years. The farm economy has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. And though Trump still holds a small lead in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, he’s now airing TV advertisements there — a tacit acknowledgment that the campaign anticipates a contest.
“We were approaching ‘done’ status — stick a fork in us,” Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said of the party’s status after the 2016 election.
Now, she said, “the worm is turning.”
That Iowa is even on the radar is surprising. Unlike in Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, Iowa four years ago was never in doubt. Of the six states that supported Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, none swung harder to Trump than Iowa. Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points — a margin wider than in Texas — and defeated Hillary Clinton in all but six of the state’s 99 counties.
This year, once Democrats finished with the chaotic presidential caucuses in February, many left Iowa without any expectation of coming back in the fall.
But in recent weeks — amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread civil unrest since the death of George Floyd — Trump has fallen further behind Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in public opinion polls everywhere. A CNN poll on Monday put Biden ahead of Trump by 14 percentage points nationally, and Biden is leading Trump in most swing states. Trump is now advertising in states he won comfortably in 2016, including Iowa, where he has spent more than $300,000 on TV in recent weeks, according to data from the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
“The fact that they’re advertising here, they wouldn’t waste the money if they didn’t need to,” said Doug Gross, a Republican operative who was a chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Much of the Democrats’ registration gains in Iowa can be attributed to the excitement surrounding the party’s caucuses — and the year-plus of campaigning and organizing in Iowa leading up to them.