DES MOINES — A half-dozen special elections in Iowa over the past 14 months showed a clear trend: Democratic candidates doing better — much better, in some cases — than their party did in the 2016 presidential election.
This trend has bolstered Democrats’ spirits as they hope to rebound in this fall’s midterm election.
But election experts recommend caution. They say it is dangerous to suggest results from those six special elections foreshadow any future results.
At first glance, the results would not appear to be cause for Democratic optimism. In each of the six races for seats in the Iowa Legislature, the party that previously held the seat won the special election. Democrats won three and Republicans won three.
The Democrats get their encouragement from comparing the special election results to the 2016 presidential election results.
In each of the six special elections, the margin was better for Democrats than it was for the party in the 2016 presidential vote. In four of the six races, the Democrat’s margin improved by more than 30 percentage points.
For example: In the August special election in Iowa House District 82, which includes Davis and Van Buren counties and part of Jefferson County in southeast Iowa, Democrat Phil Miller won his race by 9.3 percentage points. In the 2016 presidential vote in that same district, Democrat Hillary Clinton lost to Republican Donald Trump by 21.3 points.
That represents a shift of 30.6 percentage points to the Democratic candidate from the 2016 presidential election to the special election nine months later.
Three other special elections featured similar shifts toward Democrats, also surpassing 30 percentage points. Even in the races Democrats lost, their candidate outperformed the 2016 presidential margins.
To Democrats, those shifting margins, along with large, energized crowds showing up at government functions, rallies and protests, show voters are rejecting Republican policies in the wake of the 2016 election and moving in the Democrats’ direction.
“You really see that there is a growing trend building across the state, that the momentum is swinging toward the Democrats,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “I think you saw that in special election after special election after special election, that people are fired up and ready to go, and the numbers indicate that.”
Iowa elections experts are more hesitant to assign any value to the half-dozen special election results.
“I would be reluctant to feel real confident that what happened in these special elections is a clear indication of what’s going to happen in November,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “It sends a signal right now, but beyond that I think you need to be careful.”
There are myriad reasons special election results should not be viewed as a predictor of this fall’s midterm election results, experts said.
Perhaps foremost is turnout.
In that House District 82 special election, just more than 7,000 votes were cast. Nearly twice as many were cast in that district in the 2016 presidential vote.
The disparity is even greater in other districts. Just more than 1,500 votes were cast in a June 2017 special election in Iowa House District 22, which covers most of rural Pottawattamie County. Nearly 17,000 votes — more than 11 times as many — were cast in that district in the 2016 presidential election.
Such large turnout disparities makes for an uneven comparison, experts said.
“The turnout numbers are so different,” Larimer said. “You just have to be careful about making any broad generalization.”
It’s not just the low number of special election voters — it’s the type of voters. In a special election, typically only the parties’ most ardent and politically engaged voters cast a ballot. The electorate in the 2016 presidential election was vastly different, as will be the electorate in this fall’s midterm election. There will be more casual voters and independents.
In short, the people who voted in the recent half-dozen special elections were just a small subset of the people who voted in 2016 and who will vote this fall.
And historically, midterm turnout favors Republicans. So any gains perceived by Democrats in the special elections could be negated if history holds and in November they don’t turn out as well as Republicans.
“The increased vote for Democrats is a positive sign, but we don’t know whether that’s a continuing, improving trend,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. “Democrats and independents do not have a very good turnout record in recent midterm elections in Iowa as compared with Republicans.”
It is difficult to compare the recent half-dozen special election results with previous election results because in the past two election cycles most of the incumbents were not challenged.
The special elections took place in six districts, which saw a total of 10 elections in 2014 and 2016. Of those 10 races, only two featured both a Republican and a Democrat on the ballot. The Democrats did significantly improve their margins when comparing those results.
The special election results do not concern Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. He said in one of the Republican wins the party may have been a little complacent in assuming victory, but otherwise the results cause him no consternation.
Kaufmann said he does not see the special election results as an indicator a Democratic wave is coming this fall, and that in traveling the state he sees no reason to believe Republicans are in danger of losing what soon will be a 59-41 majority in the Iowa House.
“I’m not seeing anything there that even remotely looks like one of those game-changing type of swings,” Kaufmann said.
The Democrats, on the other hand, believe the results portend big things to come for their party. Price said their challenge is to sustain that energy and duplicate those results in November.
“We feel good,” Price said. “We think the numbers show there is some momentum on our side.”