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Primary Election Season: Iowa in Depth

MONDAY, JAN 27, 2020

The Democratic Party Presidential Primary season enters a new phase on February 3rd in Iowa. Unlike most Primary Elections taking place in the coming months, Iowa Democrats use a caucus system to pick candidates. Participants will convene at one of the state’s precincts where they will express public support for candidates and meet for hours. In 2008, a record 240,000 voters turned out for the Democratic Party Caucus, with only about 171,000 participated in the 2016 Democratic Party Caucus.

While Iowa contributes just six of the 538 votes at play in the Electoral College, the campaign efforts and results set the tone for the 2020 election. As of early January, Democratic primary candidates already targeted Iowans with more than $45 million worth of political ads (even with billionaire Michael Bloomberg skipping the state). According to the Des Moines Register’s January 6th analysis, the 2020 caucus ad spending for the Democrats will far outpace the figure for Democrats and Republicans combined back in the 2016 caucuses.

An analysis of the state's voting history, demographics and industries reveals more about the state's composition and its influence on the election. The following Social Explorer maps based on data from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections show the trends in Iowa for the General Election.

As the shift from blue in 2008 to red in 2016 shows, a number of counties that previously voted for Barack Obama in 2008 voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Explore the map to see more of the decrease in Democratic presidential votes and increase in Republican presidential votes county by county. 

Iowa Demographics:

As you explore the maps, you will also notice how the urban centers of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Davenport leaned more heavily towards Democrat for both elections. The following population density map of 2014-2018 American Community Survey data shows these areas are also the more densely populated parts of the state.

To learn more about the state at the top of the Democratic Party primary contest list, we examined demographics using the 2014-2018 American Community Survey and other surveys available on

  • Iowa's population is 90.3 percent white–17.5 percent whiter than the US as a whole (72.8 percent white).
  • The state is 3.5 percent black or African-American, just over a quarter of the rate for the entire US (12.7 percent).
  • Iowa's Hispanic population is 5.9 percent, approximately one third that for the country as a whole (17.8 percent).
  • The state's median age of 38.1 years old in just a couple months older than the national median age of 37.9 years old.
  • Iowa boasts a better high school graduation rate than the US as a whole (92 percent of adults 25 years old or over compared to 87.7 percent), but lags behind in the proportion of people with college diplomas (28.2 percent compared to 31.5 percent).
  • Iowa's median income of $58,580 is 2.8 percent lower than the nation's median income ($60,293).

Iowa Industry, Agriculture and Land:

From candidate talking points to advertisements, we hear a lot about Iowa farmers. While the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting, and Mining industries (which are combined in the Census Bureau's occupation data) make up just 3.8 percent of industries for the employed civilian population, the sector is more prevalent here than in the whole US (1.8 percent).

The top industry in Iowa (Educational Services, and Health Care and Social Assistance) matches that for the entire US (24.4 percent in Iowa and 23.1 percent in the US). Other popular Iowa industries include manufacturing (14.9 percent) and retail trade (11.7 percent).

According to the Census Bureau's 2017 County Business Patterns data, there were 394 establishments in the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting and Mining sector, employing 2,726 people with an annual payroll of $140,133,000. (Social Explorer subscribers can dig deeper into the Business Patterns data for more information, as well as data on other industries, some related to agriculture.)

A look at Iowa's landscape reveals the spread of the agricultural sector. Using Social Explorer's Environmental Summaries data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (survey year 2011), nearly two thirds of the state's land (65.4 percent) has cultivated crops, compared to just under one sixth of the nation's land (16.1 percent). Plus, 12.6 percent of Iowa land is covered by pasture or hay, nearly twice the rate for the rest of the nation (6.9 percent). The following map shows the distribution of these two land types.

As February 3rd approaches, more campaigning and more appeals to the agriculture sector are sure to come. Stay tuned to Social Explorer for more on key primary election states as 2020 continues.

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