What the voting patterns in Iowa tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the top three GOP candidates

I was curious to see the patterns that might emerge from the Iowa Republican caucus results.  When I looked at the map by county, several immediately popped out. 

First, I noticed that while Marco Rubio won only five out of the 99 counties in Iowa, those counties were all large population centers – three counties in the greater Des Moines area plus the counties containing the third and fifth largest cities in the state, Davenport and Iowa City.  Only one of these counties voted for Romney in 2012.

Second, Donald Trump seemed to have run strongest in Iowa's rust belt areas, those small to medium-sized urban areas on the Mississippi river and, to a lesser extent, on the Missouri river.  The Mississippi river towns have long been labor union and Democrat strongholds.  Indeed, on the last two presidential election maps, the counties on the Mississippi river were very blue. 

Based on these observations, I decided to do a more systematic analysis.  I started by identifying the counties that constitute the greater Des Moines area, which is the population center of the state.  I then ranked the state's other most populous counties, listing the major city in each county.  I then listed the percentage of votes for each of the three frontrunners.  On the spreadsheet below, the winner's percentage is printed in red and the third-place finisher's percentage is highlighted in light blue.

In addition to confirming the above observations about the candidates’ strongholds inside Iowa, this analysis shows that both Trump and Rubio may be more polarizing figures than the supposedly polarizing Ted Cruz. 

Consider first where the votes that placed Rubio third in the statewide tally came from.  He won five large counties – three of them with over 30% of the vote.  However, in nine of his third-place finishes in Iowa's 25 largest counties, Rubio's vote total fell below 20%.  Then when I looked at the remainder of Iowa's 99 counties, I learned that Rubio came in either fourth or fifth in ten counties.  Thus, my conclusion is that on Monday night, Rubio's appeal was definitely limited to the more urban parts of Iowa.  He was weakest in the small cities and in rural areas.  This weakness in smaller cities and rural areas was a drawback in Iowa, but it could be a positive in more urban primary states.

Trump's results by county also showed great variance.  Trump won ten of Iowa's 25 most populous counties, including six in which he won over 30% of the vote.  But he didn't win any of the five largest counties.  Indeed, the larger the county, the more likely it was that Trump would come in third.  Statewide, Trump topped out with over 40% of the vote in one county, but he also won less than 20% of the votes cast in eight counties that ranged from large to small in total population.  In two of those counties Trump came in fourth place under Dr. Ben Carson.  

Two factors may be at play here.  One, Trump's failure to win in Iowa's most urban counties suggests that a segment of suburban Republican voters refuse to identify with the vulgar image of the reality TV host.  That is interesting, because back in 1992, suburban voters were quick to identify with patriotic businessman Ross Perot.  Two, the widespread nature of Trump's weaker showings suggests that Trump has significant issues of trust among primary voters that cut across demographic lines.  Whether this is because of Trump's history of frequent contributions to Democrat politicians, his personal attacks on other Republican candidates, his changing positions on many issues, the absence of a history of support for Republican causes, or all of the above remains to be seen.  These twin problems of image and trust are not likely to go away.   

By comparison, Cruz also won ten of Iowa's 25 largest counties, including the counties that contain its second largest urban area, the economic hub of Cedar Rapids, as well as five of the seven counties that adjoin Polk county, site of Des Moines.  In five of these largest counties, Cruz won over 30% of the vote.  Perhaps more telling, Cruz finished in third place in only three of Iowa's 25 most populous counties.  Statewide, Cruz placed among the top three vote-getters in each of Iowa's 99 counties.  He won more than 40% of the votes cast in two counties, plus his total percentage of the vote fell below 20% of those cast in only two counties.  He never once placed below a lower-tier candidate.

While some are attributing Cruz's victory on Monday night to Iowa's large evangelical Christian vote, it should be noted that Cruz has also won praise from fiscal conservatives and libertarians for his refusal to pander to Iowa's powerful ethanol lobby.  This squares with something I learned from watching which conservatives were able to win elections in deep blue states such as Minnesota and Illinois: many voters will not hold views that are opposite their own against a candidate so long as those views are both sincerely held and can be cogently explained.  These voters would rather elect an honest man with whom they have well-articulated disagreements than elect an opportunist or a mountebank.

I was curious to see the patterns that might emerge from the Iowa Republican caucus results.  When I looked at the map by county, several immediately popped out. 

First, I noticed that while Marco Rubio won only five out of the 99 counties in Iowa, those counties were all large population centers – three counties in the greater Des Moines area plus the counties containing the third and fifth largest cities in the state, Davenport and Iowa City.  Only one of these counties voted for Romney in 2012.

Second, Donald Trump seemed to have run strongest in Iowa's rust belt areas, those small to medium-sized urban areas on the Mississippi river and, to a lesser extent, on the Missouri river.  The Mississippi river towns have long been labor union and Democrat strongholds.  Indeed, on the last two presidential election maps, the counties on the Mississippi river were very blue. 

Based on these observations, I decided to do a more systematic analysis.  I started by identifying the counties that constitute the greater Des Moines area, which is the population center of the state.  I then ranked the state's other most populous counties, listing the major city in each county.  I then listed the percentage of votes for each of the three frontrunners.  On the spreadsheet below, the winner's percentage is printed in red and the third-place finisher's percentage is highlighted in light blue.

In addition to confirming the above observations about the candidates’ strongholds inside Iowa, this analysis shows that both Trump and Rubio may be more polarizing figures than the supposedly polarizing Ted Cruz. 

Consider first where the votes that placed Rubio third in the statewide tally came from.  He won five large counties – three of them with over 30% of the vote.  However, in nine of his third-place finishes in Iowa's 25 largest counties, Rubio's vote total fell below 20%.  Then when I looked at the remainder of Iowa's 99 counties, I learned that Rubio came in either fourth or fifth in ten counties.  Thus, my conclusion is that on Monday night, Rubio's appeal was definitely limited to the more urban parts of Iowa.  He was weakest in the small cities and in rural areas.  This weakness in smaller cities and rural areas was a drawback in Iowa, but it could be a positive in more urban primary states.

Trump's results by county also showed great variance.  Trump won ten of Iowa's 25 most populous counties, including six in which he won over 30% of the vote.  But he didn't win any of the five largest counties.  Indeed, the larger the county, the more likely it was that Trump would come in third.  Statewide, Trump topped out with over 40% of the vote in one county, but he also won less than 20% of the votes cast in eight counties that ranged from large to small in total population.  In two of those counties Trump came in fourth place under Dr. Ben Carson.  

Two factors may be at play here.  One, Trump's failure to win in Iowa's most urban counties suggests that a segment of suburban Republican voters refuse to identify with the vulgar image of the reality TV host.  That is interesting, because back in 1992, suburban voters were quick to identify with patriotic businessman Ross Perot.  Two, the widespread nature of Trump's weaker showings suggests that Trump has significant issues of trust among primary voters that cut across demographic lines.  Whether this is because of Trump's history of frequent contributions to Democrat politicians, his personal attacks on other Republican candidates, his changing positions on many issues, the absence of a history of support for Republican causes, or all of the above remains to be seen.  These twin problems of image and trust are not likely to go away.   

By comparison, Cruz also won ten of Iowa's 25 largest counties, including the counties that contain its second largest urban area, the economic hub of Cedar Rapids, as well as five of the seven counties that adjoin Polk county, site of Des Moines.  In five of these largest counties, Cruz won over 30% of the vote.  Perhaps more telling, Cruz finished in third place in only three of Iowa's 25 most populous counties.  Statewide, Cruz placed among the top three vote-getters in each of Iowa's 99 counties.  He won more than 40% of the votes cast in two counties, plus his total percentage of the vote fell below 20% of those cast in only two counties.  He never once placed below a lower-tier candidate.

While some are attributing Cruz's victory on Monday night to Iowa's large evangelical Christian vote, it should be noted that Cruz has also won praise from fiscal conservatives and libertarians for his refusal to pander to Iowa's powerful ethanol lobby.  This squares with something I learned from watching which conservatives were able to win elections in deep blue states such as Minnesota and Illinois: many voters will not hold views that are opposite their own against a candidate so long as those views are both sincerely held and can be cogently explained.  These voters would rather elect an honest man with whom they have well-articulated disagreements than elect an opportunist or a mountebank.