Opinion | Building a better Democratic Party

Iowa Democrats need to revamp their election strategy.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

USA flag detail, closeup view. American flag background texture.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

If the Iowa Democratic Party is going to be competitive again, it must adopt an electoral strategy that combines popular progressive policy positions with a robust voter outreach program.

One of the big lessons Iowa politicos learned over the past decade was that Iowa Democrats are really bad at winning state elections. Despite the fact that Iowa is still technically considered a swing state, the Democratic Party has not held any sort of power since the Tea party wave election in 2010 — primarily because Democrats have not made an effort to connect with Iowa voters.

In the 2020 election, Iowa Republicans mobilized their election corps. GOP volunteers reached out to voters by door knocking while political operatives were planning meet and greets for Republican candidates. Democrats, on the other hand, did none of those things. Instead, citing the pandemic, they chose to expand their online presence.

The decision not to hold any type of in-person events ended up costing Democrats dearly as most voters — who tend to be considered middle aged or older — did not bother to learn about the Democratic Party platform. This essentially allowed Republicans to characterize the Democratic Party as socialists looking to restrict the freedoms of Iowans. Democrats cannot repeat the mistakes of 2020.

They must build a robust apparatus of operatives and volunteers who will meet with any prospective voter and advertise Democrat’s ideas.

In addition, Iowa, like most upper-Midwest states, has become redder as manufacturing jobs have left the state. The GOP under former President Donald Trump has manipulated the racial resentments of these blue-collar workers to win elections. As a result, Democrats have had a harder time winning elections as they have lost their base.

This makes door knocking and canvassing even more important.

Next, Iowa Democrats need to organize their platform around the median voter theorem. Derived from economics, the median voter theorem contends that if you were to line up voters on a left to right axis, the voter that will decide an election will be the one that holds the most middle-of-the-ground views. In other words, if Democrats and Republicans want to win an election, they must capture moderate voters. Now, that does not mean Democrats should adopt so-called “centrist policies.”

Rather, they must campaign on a few progressive policies that are popular with moderate Iowa voters. Some of these popular policies could include raising the minimum wage and providing high speed internet to rural populations.

A strategy based on the median voter theorem has been met with some pushback from left-leaning pundits. They are often quick to point out that former President Donald Trump, who styled himself as a right-wing populist, won the 2016 presidential election by not catering to the so-called median voter—except he did.

Even if it was inadvertent, voters saw Trump’s campaign proposals — such as promising not to cut social security benefits —  as more moderate than his opponent at the time, Hillary Clinton, thus vindicating the median voter theorem. Furthermore, these pundits have also attacked public polling — the main method operatives use for finding popular issues — as inaccurate. Instead, they point to the polling in the 2020 election as being off.

It’s much more nuanced than that.

After conducting a post-mortem of the 2020 election, the election guru Nate Silver argued that while 2020 was a mediocre year for polling, 80 percent of polls were able to correctly pick the winner of the election. Finally, the premiere polling institution in America, the Pew Research Center, has argued that pollsters should take steps to improve their polling methodology to get more representative samples of American voters.

The current electoral strategy used by Iowa Democrats has left the party in shambles. However, if the party can do a better job of reaching out to voters and remember the guiding principles of the median voter theorem, they can build back better.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.