Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Johnson County Election Numbers, Part One

Joe Biden at the Hamburg Inn, 2007

For the second cycle in a row, election season in Johnson County is going into overtime. Two years ago it was the sudden death of supervisor Kurt Friese and the special election of Royceann Porter, and this year it's a near-certain recount in the de facto tied 2nd Congressional District race. 

This is part one of at least a two-parter; I'll be re-writing this deep-deep number cruncher next. For now, let's take a big picture look. 

I've been struggling with profoundly mixed feelings the past week - joy of course for Joe Biden's victory and for our local success. All sorts of records were smashed - overall turnout over 84,000, voter registration topping 100,000 for the first time, and Biden breaking the 70% barrier that Obama just barely missed. The joy and excitement and determination of those tens of thousands of voters lined up at our drive-thru voting and the countless buckets of ballots I emptied from the drop boxes - those things are built like tanks - made me proud of my community and proud of my career. 

But all of that is tempered by shock and sadness for our state results: the Senate race that was never supposed to be close, but for a few weeks was at center stage; the congressional race that at the moment is just beyond our reach - and worst of all, the strong re-endorsement by Iowans of the four years of cruelty - I'm lumping volumes into that one word - by Donald Trump, the least suited man ever to hold The Job. 

Well, I guess at least they can't just blame Hillary anymore, huh.

We couldn't campaign the way Democrats usually campaign. I think no doorknocking was the right and responsible thing in terms of public health and in terms of messaging. Trump never took COVID seriously, not even after he got it himself, and we needed to signal that we did. I wouldn't change that decision.

But it was a no-win either way. It's an unfortunate reality that many of the rural voters we couldn't reach, who are already mad that "Democrats never show up"... 

(I have a whole `nother post about that in my head which I may or may not ever post)

...many of the rural voters we couldn't reach, who are already mad that "Democrats never show up," largely think that COVID is Fake News. So we got no credit for the responsibility, we lost our most effective communication tools, and we got blamed Yet Again for Not Showing Up.


This map looks familiar.

There was one issue in this election, that issue was Trump (his mis-handling of COVID was a sidebar to that story), and it was nearly impossible for a candidate in a down ballot race to break through that noise. Voters, especially new or infrequent voters, are reluctant to make marks in races they know little about. That led to some under-voting. Not a lot more than in previous years, but enough to make a difference.

In Johnson County, Theresa Greenfield ran 2114 votes behind Biden, and Rita Hart was 3053 behind Biden. Some of that was anti-Trump voters who crossed back to the GOP down-ballot. Trump ran 848 votes behind Joni Ernst and 1174 behind Miller-Meeks. So let's say as a rough measure about 1000 Republicans, about 5% of their voters, were Never Trump.

But the most haunting numbers of the whole election, in light of the 40 vote margin as I write, are the 3907 under votes in the congressional race. That share was highest in the student precincts and in trailer court dominated West Lucas.

But it's wrong to blame undervoting in student precincts - some are already doing that - for the apparent loss, when Johnson County did more for the Democratic ticket than anyone else in the district or state. Johnson County was the top county in the state by 13 to 14 points across the board in all of the top of the ticket races. That same pattern and that same exact margin has been a pattern since the 2014 cycle. There used to be a little more variation, and we used to be more like five or six points ahead of the next best, but ever since 2014 it's been number one in every race and it's been in the ballpark of 13 to 15%.

Biden's 70.57% narrowly breaks the Johnson County all time presidential record set by Barack Obama in 2008 (69.91%), but Biden didn't hit 60 anywhere else. The closest was 57.19% in Story County, which in an era where education and partisanship are tightly linked seems to be emerging as the state's #2 Democratic county. 

Anybody else wonder if, in the context of a rural dominated Love The Hawkeyes And Cyclones Hate The Universities state, that the association of the Democrats with the college towns is part of the problem?

I'll dig into the long version of the Johnson County presidential numbers in a part two post. The short version is that the third party vote collapsed and nearly all of the switches were to the Democrats. The third parties, and nearly 1000 write ins, jumped to 7.4% in 2016, but collapsed to 2.1% this year.

Now, obviously, not every erstwhile Libertarian or Green switched to Joe this time, and there were no doubt some Republicans with regrets who left Trump this time. But remarkably, Trump's Johnson County percentage stayed nearly identical - 27.35 last time, 27.34 this year. So the simplistic "third parties switched to D"  works well enough to cover the math.

There's a lot of reasons for that. We saw a similar but stronger version of it from 2000 to 2004, when the Ralph Nader vote was literally decimated. Without getting into the Holy War of "vote shaming," razor close elections and dramatic unpleasant consequences do that to third party votes. 

Some other stuff happened too. We saw greater cooperation between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden than we saw between Sanders and Clinton. Still too little too late for me, but leaving that aside and looking at numbers, Sanders drew a lot of the write ins in 2016 and we only got about 1/4 as many write-ins this year.

Also, the third party candidates on the ballot were less well known than in past years. The exception is Kanye West, whose ego and mental health were cynically exploited but who willingly went along with it. In the end no one was fooled and his numbers were insignificant.

Yo Kanye, I'm really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but you had one of the worst campaigns of ALL TIME.

As for candidates that actually drew significant numbers:

In 2016, both Jill Stein and Gary Johnson were on their second consecutive campaigns, and both Johnson and his running mate were former (Republican) governors. In contrast, both the Libertarians and Greens nominated little known party activists this year. Quick, without Googling, name them.

And there wasn't a candidate in the Never Trump mainstream conservative niche that Evan McMullin filled four years ago. Based on the results from Utah, the one state where McMullin ran strong in 2016, his supporters split about evenly between Trump and Biden.

The voting process itself showed as intense a polarization in Johnson County as it did elsewhere. Donald Trump actually won the Election Day vote in Johnson County, 51-45%. So many Democrats voted early that there were hardly any left by Election Day, and Republicans made a point of waiting. Biden, meanwhile, carried the early vote by an incredible 80-18%.  Overall, 72.4% of the county's votes were cast before Election Day, just a little below the record pace set in the primary (before the post office scare put some people off mailed ballots - and as a side note our local post office did a fantastic job).

On the strictly local level, in the one seriously contested race in House 73 retiring sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek took on a tough mission and came up short. The Solon area continued its red shift as Pulkrabek's 435 vote edge out of Johnson was not enough to overcome Bobby Kaufmann's big margins in the Cedar and Muscatine county parts of the district. Kaufmann actually carried the city of Solon and surrounding Cedar and Big Grove townships, while Pulkrabek prevailed in the southern part of the Johnson County turf. Looks like redistricting (maybe) is the only way we'll get Kaufmann out of the county. 

It's a sad coda to Pulkrabek's career but at least there's the consolation of seeing his endorsed successor Brad Kunkel elected, a win Kunkel clinched in the June Democratic primary (he also got enough June write-ins that he could have claimed the Republican nomination if he had wanted). Trivia: Kunkel sets a new record for the most votes ever won by anyone in Johnson County, while Biden sets the new high water mark for a contested race.

The supervisor race was contested, sort of, with Republican Phil Hemingway arguing for the third time that he could best represent "rural interests." That argument let him finish first ahead of the three Democrats in 11 rural precincts, but there's a lot more votes in town and Hemingway was 19,000 votes behind the third Democrat, Porter.

That old "farm vote" that dominated the Supervisors for a century is now more or less a protest vote, a reflection of the ever increasing rural-urban split in America. There just aren't enough farm votes in this urban academic county to win, swing, or even be much influence except under solar-eclipse-rare circumstances like the March 2013 special election. With the spikes in June turnout we saw this year and in 2018, the farm vote isn't even enough to swing a primary, which is how Farm Bureau type conservative Democrats dominated the Board up to the 1990s.

Porter was about 3000 votes behind the second place Democrat, Rod Sullivan, and he was about 2500 behind the ticket leader, Lisa Green-Douglass. That's a shift in order from the primary where Porter was second and Sullivan third, but that only matters for bragging rights.

Porter did finish first in four precincts - the southeast side's precinct 15, the very liberal 18 and 21, and in Coralville 5. Sullivan carried eight, with no obvious pattern, and Green-Douglass topped the rest.

We're talking about narrow differences in many cases here. But it's hard not to notice Porter running just a little behind the white colleagues in most if not all places. Not so much in the rural places Hemingway won, where the pattern was Phil well ahead of the three Democrats in what looked like bullet voting. It was just 50 votes here, 100 votes there, not unlike Dierdre DeJear running just a little behind the rest of the ticket in 2018.

Anyway, a win is a win is a win for the three Democrats. Sullivan becomes just the second five-term supervisor in memory, joining Sally Stutsman (who left for the legislature two years into her last term). Hemingway is now 1-5 lifetime in elections and 0-3 for the Supervisors. But maybe he can try a fourth time - seems to have worked* for Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

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