In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis won Iowa 55-45, a margin second only to Rhode Island, despite losing the general election 46-54. As late as 2008 and 2012, Barrack Obama won the state. Yet Iowa went for Trump by 8-9 percentage point margins. in 2016 and 2020.

This has been attributed to the evangelical vote. But in 1988, Business Week attributed Dukakis' strength to " a church-based peace movement." (Reagan, and by implication Bush, was considered a "warmonger.")

What caused the flip of the state? Are today's "evangelicals" a modern version of the earlier "peaceniks?" Are they opposite sides of the same coin? Or are they two different phenomena altogether?

Source: Wikipedia articles for respective years.

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    Iowa was historically a "red" state, with an impressive 14-election Republican streak from 1856 to 1908, broken by Woodrow Wilson in 1912. So maybe you should be treating 1988-2012 (when the Democrats won 6 out of 7 elections in Iowa) as an exception to a long-term "red" trend, instead of as your baseline.
    – dan04
    Commented Jan 18 at 3:33
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    @dan04: I wouldn't go back 100 years (maybe 50), because of all the "flipping" that has taken place during that time. For instance, most of the formerly Confederate states were Democratic until the 1960s, and Republican since. On the other hand, New York, now a solidly blue state, was Republican (other than during FDR and Grover Cleveland, both former governors), until JFK in 1960.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 18 at 4:40
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    "Church-based"and "evangelical" do not necessarily mean the same thing. A growing fraction of people who identify as evangelical do not go to church. Among the general population (as opposed to religious scholars) it's becoming more of a political identity and not so much a religious belief system. Commented Jan 18 at 19:10
  • @TomAu: True, elections 100 years ago have little relevance to US politics today, but even if you start in 1968, Republicans won 8/14 (57%) of the presidential elections in Iowa.
    – dan04
    Commented Jan 19 at 22:50

1 Answer 1


The New York Times had a recent article on pretty much this exact question "Why Iowa Turned So Red When Nearby States Went Blue" (2024-01-08).

These were the reasons they gave:

Deindustrialization of rural reaches and the Mississippi River regions ...

hollowing out of institutions, from civic organizations to small-town newspapers ...

an issue that once would have been handled through discussions at church or the Rotary Club instead became infected with national politics ... New multicolored lighting installed last summer to illuminate the town’s carillon bell tower prompted an angry debate over L.G.B.T.Q. rights, leaving much of the town soured on identity politics that they largely blamed on the national left.

(My interpretation of the last paragraph: Thanks to cable TV, the internet, and then social media, issues that once would not have been widely seen as being tied to some national ideological debate now are and so further add to polarization.)

Another issue: Brain drain. The movement of young college graduates out of Iowa and the Dakotas to the metropolises of Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul made a mark on the politics of all five states. ...

Iowa loses 34.2 percent of its college graduates, worse than 40 of the 50 states, just below North Dakota, which loses 31.6 percent. Illinois, by contrast, gains 20 percent more college graduates than it produces. Minnesota has about 8 percent more than it produces.

Self-sorting (those who lean Democrat tend to move away):

Iowa ... now has a government almost wholly under Republican control, which has enacted boldly conservative policies that ban almost all abortions and transition care for minors, publicly fund vouchers for private schools and pull books describing sexual acts from school libraries. ...

Meantime on the east bank of the Mississippi, in Illinois, high-capacity semiautomatic rifles have been banned, the right to an abortion has been enshrined in law and recreational marijuana is legal. Upriver in Minnesota, pot is legal, unauthorized immigrants are getting driver’s licenses, and voting access for felons and teens is expanding.

Such policy dichotomies are influencing the decisions of younger Iowans ...

Chased by the shifting politics, ... at least one of her children now plans to move his family across the border to Minnesota.

The bigger puzzle might instead be why Iowa didn't turn "red" earlier. On this:

The politics of rural voters in the Upper Midwest may simply be catching up to other rural regions that turned conservative earlier ... Southern rural white voters turned sharply to the right in the 1960s and 1970s as Black southerners gained power with the civil rights movement and attendant legislation ...

But rural voters in the Upper Midwest, where few Black people lived, held on to a more diverse politics for decades longer. North Dakota, with its state bank, state grain mill and state grain elevator, has retained vestiges of a socialist past, when progressive politicians railed against rapacious businessmen from the Twin Cities. ...

Until relatively recently, there was a Midwestern rural white voter who was distinct from a southern rural white voter ... There was a real progressive tradition in the Midwest uncoopted by Jim Crow and racial issues.

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    Yet another factor is the decline of the family farm. The rural parts of Iowa have suffered greatly from the shift from 160 acre farms to huge factory farms. Much of the labor has been automated, and what's left is largely seasonal, with those seasonal workers being mostly immigrants, legal and illegal. Commented Jan 18 at 13:44
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    @JonathanReez: I doubt people self-select because they care so much This is just one of many factors in deciding where to live. Nobody (neither I nor NYT) claims that "voting rights for felons or semi-auto rifle access" is the sole criterion in deciding where to live. For many, this could just be something that makes them 2% less likely to live in Iowa. And if many were already on the fence on whether to live in Iowa or say Minnesota, this 2% nudge could cause many of them to choose Minnesota instead of Iowa.
    – user103496
    Commented Jan 19 at 0:15
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    @JonathanReez, "voting rights for felons" might not be a common reason to self-select, but "access to abortion" very much is.
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 19 at 4:05
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    @JonathanReez Seeing as 49% of women (source: NYT)) who get abortions are under the poverty line and the majority already live in blue states, I don't think it's justifiable to claim that a "much smaller percentage" of women cannot afford to travel to another state. Also, the NYTimes cites a source putting the estimated percent of women that receive abortions at some point in their life at near 25%. Adjusting for women who can't afford to travel, you'd expect a higher poverty rate (>50%) ).
    – Mars
    Commented Jan 19 at 5:24
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    I'd say that "access to legal abortion" is much more about "what kind of place do I want to live in" than "Do I personally need one?". I am a man, I will never need an abortion, but if they're made illegal where I live, I'm leaving, because that is not the kind of society I want to contribute anything to.
    – Erik
    Commented Jan 19 at 7:47

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