Growing Division in Iowa

Oct 11, 2017

Election night 2016 put Iowa's divisions on display. The state was a sea of red dotted with blue islands representing Iowa's largest metro areas. Iowans talk a lot about the rural urban divide. But voting in the presidential election allowed those divisions to be mapped. On this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbes talks with experts about the economic, political, and social differences between Iowa's rural and urban areas.

Dave Swenson, associate scientist in the department of economics at Iowa State University says while Iowa's rural counties look decidedly red when represented on the election map, there's actually a lot of variability in the economic health and well-being of rural counties. Those parts of rural Iowa that are closer to growth centers in Iowa's more urban areas are healthier economically. Those that are further away from those growth areas struggle for jobs.

"It's a mistake to think of just rural and urban in Iowa," says Swenson. "There's a lot of shades of gray."

Swenson says more efficient agricultural practices have eliminated the need for much farm labor, but many rural economies aren't diverse enough to absorb that labor. The result is out-migration. While rural areas continue to lose population, Iowa's cities are gaining population at a rate of nearly eight percent per year.

Those demographic trends are driving political trends in Iowa as well, according to Chris Larimer, associate professor of political science at University of Northern Iowa. Larimer says the most Republican areas of the state can be found in the northwest and southwest corners, which also happen to be the most rural.

Larimer says as Iowans up to age 44 continue to migrate out of rural counties, you would expect rural counties to become even more Republican. But the proportional weight they will carry in any statewide election will go down. In contrast, if cities continue to grow, urban parts of the state will carry more proportional weight, and elections in Iowa will soon come down to 9 or 10 counties with half of the state's registered voters.

"Iowa's political geography is very, very imbalanced," says Larimer. "So with the way the population is sorting, Iowa's divisions will likely only become greater."

Paul Lasley is a professor of sociology at Iowa State University. He says some of the extreme partisanship is being driven by social media, where it's easier to be more divisive because you're insulated from the reactions of others. And, he says the demographic trends, while factual, are indicative of lots of other issues.

"Much of the strength of Iowa has been the result of collective action, of working together, whether in rural or urban places," says Lasley. He cites the building of infrastructure as a good example. But he says we've seemingly abandoned the idea of the common good, in favor of extreme individualism.

He did strike a note of hope, saying he believes Iowans are beginning to tire of the divisiveness in favor of bridging the differences.