What’s the take-away from Tuesday’s primary for the Iowa general election in November?
Not much, other than it might be time to look at a better way of choosing candidates.
Turnout in the single digits — low single digits in many places — led Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt to suggest that “primaries are a terrible way to choose candidates.”
“We need a better process,” Schmidt said, a day after Iowans — or at least a few of us — went to the polls to select general election candidates.
There were no statewide races to drive participation, and even competitive congressional races in the 1st and 2nd districts in Eastern Iowa failed to motivate voters.
In the 1st, fewer than 37,000 of more than a half million registered voters participated. In the 2nd District, fewer than 49,000 of the 551,000 registered voters cast ballots.
Even lively auditors’ races in Linn and Johnson counties failed to generate turnout that exceeded single digits — 6.5 percent in Linn and 9 percent in Johnson.
Beyond turnout, political scientists said the primary offered few insights into what it expected to be hotly contested races at all levels come Nov. 6.
“I don’t see any big implications from the Iowa primaries,” said Cary Covington, who teaches political science at the University of Iowa. The parties are likely to analyze the results looking for meaningful differences in voter turnout rates, “but I haven’t seen anything to make that significant at this time.”
Likewise, what surprises there were tended to be in local races, such as the defeat of the longtime Democratic Johnson County auditor, which Covington attributed to factors “idiosyncratic and specific to that race.”
University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer noted the defeat of a Polk County Republican incumbent and the margin of victory in House 50, where Rep. Pat Grassley, the grandson of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, defeated Rep. Annette Sweeney. The two GOP incumbents were thrown together by redistricting.
“The Grassley name continues to be an indomitable force in Iowa politics,” Larimer said of the younger Grassley’s 61 percent to 39 percent win.
There may be no solution to perpetually low voter turnout in primary elections, according to Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at ISU. However, it could be improved by rescheduling the primary or following the lead of other states that have tried mail-in ballots, for example.
“June’s probably not the best time to have a race,” she said. “People aren’t focused on campaigns. School’s out, people are going on vacation.”
Some states have earlier primaries; others hold their primary elections as late as August or September.
“That means the candidates have less time to campaign, but that may not be a bad thing,” Bystrom said.