DAVENPORT — Like many Democratic voters, Don Shipley was shocked when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Not nearly as surprising to Shipley, a 75-year-old retired truck driver and Vietnam-era veteran from Davenport, was the fact that Trump, a Republican, won Iowa after the state in the previous two elections went for Barack Obama.
If Democrats want to win back the areas they lost, including many counties in eastern Iowa, Shipley has a suggestion.
“Look over the farmer, the working man and the elderly,” Shipley said. “This is the working man’s area.”
Iowa’s Mississippi River counties were ground zero for a significant shift in the 2016 presidential election. Of the 10 Iowa counties along the river, nine went for Trump after having voted twice for Democratic President Barack Obama. Even the lone Democratic holdout, Scott County, went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by just 1 percentage point. All told, Iowa had 31 so-called Obama-Trump counties — the most of any state in the nation.
How people in those counties vote in 2020 — whether they remain Republican, or swing back to Democrats — could play a role in the outcome of the presidential election.
Based on discussions with Iowans throughout the state’s Mississippi River counties, the jury remains out as to where those 2016 swing counties will land in 2020.
Some feel the region is trending politically toward Republicans. Others feel Democrats can win back those counties with the right candidate and message. Others remain befuddled, leaving open the possibility that November 2020 could deliver another shock to Democrats, similar to the one Don Shipley felt after the last election.
“I was more than surprised," Shipley said. "I darn near almost drowned myself."
Temporary swing or permanent shift?
There were 206 Obama-Trump counties in 34 states in 2016. Iowa had 31 Obama-Trump counties — more than any other state; Wisconsin was next with 23.
The largest concentration of Obama-Trump counties was along the Mississippi River in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. Iowa’s 10 Obama-Trump counties along the Mississippi River were joined on the river’s eastern banks by five Wisconsin counties and six in Illinois.
Some of the swings of the political pendulum would have destroyed a grandfather clock. Jackson County, the starkest example, swung by 36 points — Obama beat Mitt Romney there by 17 percentage points in 2012, and Trump beat Clinton there by 19 points in 2016.
Eastern Iowa voters clearly have displayed a willingness to latch onto a presidential candidate regardless of political affiliation. The question is whether 2016 signaled the beginning of a permanent shift toward a more conservative lean, if those voters will remain in Trump’s corner, or if 2020 will be yet another change election in the region.
Opinions vary throughout the region.
Jennifer Smith, a former local GOP party chairwoman and current state party central committee member from Dubuque County, said her sense is that those voters who swung to Trump in 2016 are ready to give the president another four years in the White House.
A 17-point swing gave Republicans a presidential victory in Dubuque County for the first time since 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected.
“What I’ve been hearing is those who voted for Trump, the vast majority are still very in favor of him. And those that switched are not regretting it,” Smith said. “I’m also hearing an increase in people who didn’t necessarily support him, but are interested in supporting him this round.”
A few hundred miles north, Allamakee County swung by 29 points in 2016, and Lori Egan fears it’s not about to swing back.
“I don’t know that that pendulum is going to swing back. I just really don’t,” said Egan, a co-chair of the Allamakee County Democrats. “I really don’t get a sense from people that they are dissatisfied with the way things are going.”
Other Democrats have not lost hope. They believe the right candidate — roughly two dozen have been barnstorming Iowa in hopes of earning the right to face off against Trump next year — can win back those voters who left the party or stayed home in 2016.
“It all depends on who the candidate is,” said Jim Mellick, an attorney from Waukon, in Allamakee County, and a Democratic voter. “If it’s the right candidate, (swing voters) will definitely go back. There’s a lot of people here really fed up with Trump.”
Shipley said Democrats have a chance to win back working-class Iowans if they focus on staple issues like jobs, health care and veterans' affairs. Democrats, he added, can convince working-class voters that Trump has not delivered on his 2016 campaign promises.
“Everything Trump said he’s going to do for the working man, he hasn’t done,” Shipley said.
Some in the area feel conflicted about Trump’s presidency. Tony Arguello, a self-described independent voter from Scott County, praised Trump’s handling of the economy and his diplomatic efforts with North Korea, but was critical of other aspects of Trump’s administration.
"I can’t agree with the way immigrants are being treated,” he said. "Trump's done everything he can do not to get re-elected.”
The Democratic nominee
Democrats agree they must nominate the candidate who is best equipped to defeat Trump. They differ on not only who that candidate should be, but also on what type of candidate he or she should be. Should Democrats nominate a moderate or centrist? Or should they nominate a more progressive or liberal candidate?
Republicans, on the other hand, were in far more agreement when it came to which Democrat they feel has the best shot at beating Trump: former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think Joe Biden might be the biggest problem for (Trump), or the most challenging for him,” Smith said.
Smith said Biden is well-known because of his decades in politics, and she thinks voters would find Biden likable, which she thinks would present a challenge to Trump, who she acknowledged “is very polarizing and upsets people.”
Still, Smith believes Trump would beat Biden, too.
One thing Democrats did agree on is that their candidate needs to be present and well-organized.
They said their party’s candidate must be active in states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. An enduring criticism of Clinton’s campaign is that she did not spend sufficient time campaigning in those states, particularly Wisconsin and Michigan.
“People didn’t like being taken for granted,” said Jim West, a 72-year-old retired maintenance worker from Clinton. “If you have a vast grass-roots program that reaches out to teachers, plumbers, welders and others, you feel like you’re part of a bigger program that’s going somewhere.”
Joleen Jansen, a business owner, county energy district program manager and two-time county supervisor candidate in Clayton County, said a presidential campaign with the right kind of grass-roots organization can win back rural Iowa simply by being in touch with voters there.
Clayton County, another Obama-Trump river county, swung 29 points to Republicans in 2016.
Jansen said the Obama campaigns offered a prime example of that kind of organization and voter contact, and credited this cycle’s campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and John Delaney as two examples that have made similar efforts.
“A well-organized candidate (can say to rural voters), ‘You are somebody. We recognize you. Clayton County is important, and I am here and here’s my office. ... I see you as a human and I see you as relevant to my recipe for success,’” Jansen said.
Tough to predict
Some Iowans in those swing Mississippi River counties said they simply do not have a good sense of which way the political winds will blow next year.
For many Democrats, Republicans and independents, the basic calculus of national politics hasn’t changed much over the last few years: Good economies help incumbents. Voters care most about life in their own backyard.
“My theory is that the county has moved at the fringes, but it’s mostly the same,” said Nathan Mather, a Republican and chair of the Muscatine County Board of Supervisors.
Democratic ambivalence ahead of 2020 might be more than caution born from the failure of 2016. Many of the river counties are shrinking, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Since 2010, Louisa County has lost almost 2% of its population. Des Moines, Allamakee and Clayton counties have lost about 3%. Lee County has lost 5%.
Clinton County has lost more people, about 2,600, than any county in Iowa. Many Democrats said they believed most of those voters were Democrats.
Others see a different destiny in demography. As residents of the river counties continue to age, their attention will increasingly turn to issues like health care, said Richard Perkins, a Muscatine resident critical of the president. Democrats can capitalize. He predicted the area will “go more blue than last time.”
If Democrats and independents of eastern Iowa had a single bit of advice for prospective occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it was this: “Take the time to listen to what people want,” said Jered Newberry, a Scott County resident and Democrat.
Tony Hernandez, a Muscatine resident and political independent, has been in a wheelchair ever since he was struck by a drunk driver more than 20 years ago, when he was 7 years old. Health care is a “life or death issue” for him, and he has suffered from the privatization of Medicaid under then-Gov. Terry Branstad, he said.
Hernandez hasn’t made up his mind yet for the 2020 election, but he urges candidates to “pay attention and take notes,” he said. “Getting angry won’t do anything.”
But even with all the right components — a present and charismatic candidate, a robust ground game, a persuasive campaign message and strong policy platform — a Democratic victory in 2020 is far from guaranteed. The art of winning eastern Iowa is not exactly a science.
Patti Ruff is among the befuddled. Ruff is a Democratic former state legislator from McGregor who represented Clayton County for two terms before being defeated in 2016.
Speaking more broadly about Iowa’s 1st Congressional District — which contains the four northern-most swing river counties, plus others with huge 2016 swings, like Worth (37 points), Mitchell (27) and Howard (42) along the Minnesota border — Ruff was unable to explain the region’s recent political swings.
The 20-county 1st District also went for both Obama and Trump. And in the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic state legislator Abby Finkenauer was able to unseat two-term Republican incumbent Rep. Rod Blum.
“I can’t explain how you can go from Obama to Trump and yet select Abby Finkenauer,” Ruff said. “It just seems out of whack.”