Thursday, July 02, 2009

Local races may ripple through Iowa primary

All Politics is Local - or is it Statewide?

I've ranted recently about crossover voting in primaries. As anyone who reads a site like mine should know, Iowa is a "closed" (sic) primary state, meaning you have to be registered in a party to vote in a primary, and you vote only in one party's primary at a time. You can't for example participate in a Republican primary for governor and a Democratic courthouse primary.

It's a soft version of "closed," because you can change party on the spot, and a lot of people do. Leaving aside my opinion on that law, let's look at how it can impact a statewide race. In a sense, Vander Plaats and Rants and Fong aren't just running against each other--they're running against the interesting local Democratic contests.

The People's Republic of Johnson County, you'll be surprised to know, is among the top ten in the state in number of registered Republicans. Even though they're outnumbered by Democrats roughly 2.5 to 1 (in both party registration and the 2008 presidential results), that still leaves a lot of Republicans just on sheer population.

Locals call our Democratic primary the "real election" for courthouse jobs. But in 2002, Johnson County Democrats had their only uncontested primary in county history. Incumbent vs. write-in, from Tom Vilsack on down to county treasurer Tom Kriz. But 2010 is likely to see contested Democratic courthouse races, with Janelle Rettig already up and running for supervisor.

1998 was a more typical gubernatorial year: a moderately interesting Republican governor's race with Jim Ross Lightfoot heavily favored over Paul Pate and Dave Oman, and white-hot open seat recorder and supervisor races on the Democratic side. And oh yeah, incidentally, governor too. How much is the Johnson County Democratic primary a local race? 800 more votes for recorder than for governor, as (I'm generalizing about secret ballots here, but it's not much of a stretch) crossover Republicans left the Tom Vilsack vs. Mark McCormick race blank.

(Tangent: That one was closer than people remember, just over 3000 votes statewide; Vilsack won it by rolling up Kim Jong Il sized margins in his senate district.)

With no local excitement on the Democratic side, more Republicans actually stayed in the Republican primary in 2002. Turnout jumped to 3,386, half again more than `98, and (generalizing again) those 800 people who skipped the governor's race in 1998 were probably a big chunk of that.

The more moderate 2002 candidate, Doug Gross, carried Johnson with 1341 votes and 40 percent, with Vander Plaats last at 941 votes and 28 percent--exactly 400 votes apart. With competition for voter interest on the Democratic side in 2010, lower turnout in a moderate county means a lower numeric margin for a moderate candidate.

Let's apply the 2002 candidate percentages to the 1998 turnout totals in Johnson County. Gross's margin over Vander Plaats drops from 400 to 232, a net loss of 168 in one county. That's significant when you consider that Gross was only 1,746 votes away, statewide, from a convention.

And that's even assuming that the relative percentages between conservatives and moderates stay the same. My hunch is that the most committed Republicans would care more about governor than the courthouse.

There are a million such stories in the naked city of Iowa politics. How will, say, the primary for Christopher Rants' open House seat boost Republican turnout, and which of the Sioux City Two will it benefit? How many other things like that are lurking? All we need is someone to crunch the numbers and analyze the lay of the land in 98 more counties, 125 legislative races and five congressional districts.

No comments: