Iowa’s changing political landscape has presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney making campaign appearance in places that defy conventional wisdom.
Republican Romney has made stops in Dubuque and Scott counties, places where voters typically support Democratic presidential candidates.
For the most part, Obama has visited counties where Democrats have a voter registration advantage or he carried in 2008. However, he also made stops in Boone, Marshall, Mahaska and Pottawattamie counties where the GOP has voter registration advantages.
The seemingly counter-intuitive travel schedules are evidence the Iowa electorate isn’t the same as when Obama breezed to a 9 percentage point victory over John McCain four years ago. Republicans now have a statewide voter registration advantage and have flipped control of the Governor’s Office and Iowa House.
Story County, where the president will be Tuesday, is one of those places where the GOP has taken a voter registration advantage since 2008.
And when he visits Polk County Sept. 1, it will not be the “Democratic bastion it used to be,” according to Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Drake University.
Polk County, he points out, was represented by Republican Greg Ganske for several years and Gov. Terry Branstad won the county over incumbent Democratic Gov. Chet Culver there in 2010.
Romney may be trying to tap into latent GOP support in Eastern Iowa, Goldford said.
“Remember that until his run for governor in 2006, Jim Nussle represented northeastern Iowa for over a decade, preceded by Tom Tauke,” Goldford said. Both Nussle and Tauke are Republicans. “There are a lot of conservative Catholics over there.”
And Scott County is a “big swing county,” said Steve Grubbs of Victory Enterprises, a political consulting firm in Davenport that typically works for Republicans. Although voters there generally support Democratic presidential candidates, “It’s always voted for Branstad. He’s never lost there.”
There’s also what the Romney campaign calls the “thrill is gone” effect.
“Four years ago, Iowans voted for President Obama because they believed his promises to slash our deficit in half, create millions of new jobs, and reduce the cost of healthcare, but each of these promises has been broken,” said Romney spokesman Shawn McCoy. “Iowans are disappointed, and our campaign is reaching out to Iowans who voted for President Obama in 2008.”
Erin Seidler of the Obama campaign isn’t buying the whole “enthusiasm gap” theory. The president’s visits to GOP-leaning territory is a sign the “whole state is up for grabs,” said.
“We’re not looking at this as a Democratic county or a Republican county,” she said. “We’re looking at a message that is resonating statewide.”
There may be another reason for campaigning behind the enemy’s lines. In an effort to win Iowa’s six Electoral College votes, both candidates may be trying to cut their losses, Grubbs said.
When Obama goes to Council Bluffs, he said, it’s not because he believes he’ll carry southwest Iowa. Any votes he picks up there helps offsets votes he might not win in some traditional Democratic territory where voters are not as enthusiastic as four years ago, he said.
“Same thing for Mitt Romney in Eastern Iowa,” Grubbs said. “If he’s going to carry Iowa, he can’t lose there by 10 points.”
The visits seem to reflect a strategy based on turnout rather than persuasion, said Chris Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa
“For Obama, this is a big shift from 2008 when the campaign based on ‘hope and change’ sought to persuade independents and even some Republicans.”
A turnout campaign would suggest each campaign wants to maximize contact in their strongholds.
“Obama out west and Romney in the eastern p
art of state may indicate both sides are trying to balance a turnout campaign with the fact that Iowa has such a large number of “no party” registrants,” Larimer said.
Or, suggests Dianne Bystrom of the Catt Center for Women & Politics at Iowa State University, the candidates may have so much money that they can afford the repeated visits to a swing state..
“However, the huge amount of money each presidential candidate has to spend this election cycle allows them to spend resources in cities, counties and districts more amenable to their opponent,” she said.