Iowa’s Congressional District Map 5th Least Competitive in 17 Decades

Last month Smart Politics profiled the lack of competitiveness generated by Minnesota’s currently drawn Congressional District map – a map that has produced the third least percentage of competitive contests in 15 decades in the Gopher State.

Minnesota’s neighbor to the south, while boasting a more competitive electoral history than the Gopher State, is also in the midst of a dearth in competitive U.S. House races when examined in a historical context. This includes a lackluster number of closely-fought seats in recent years despite the Hawkeye State being somewhat renowned in legislative circles for devising its district maps led by a nonpartisan redistricting service, the Legislative Service Bureau.

Iowa’s current Congressional district map, divided into five districts, has produced the 5th lowest percentage of competitive general election races (those decided by less than 10 points) in the history of the state – dating back 17 decades to its first elections in 1847.

In 2008, no races were decided by less than 10 points – with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points. Since the inauguration of the current maps in 2002, just 20 percent of U.S. House races in Iowa have been competitive (5 of 20 contests). While this is more than double the national average (9.3 percent), it pales in the face of Iowa’s rich history of producing close electoral contests.

From 1847 to 1980 (prior to the codification of the state’s current redistricting process), more than one-third of all general election races were decided by less than 10 points – 197 of 560 (35.2 percent). This is a remarkable achievement, considering the stronghold the Republican Party had on Hawkeye State politics during this span: the GOP won 473 of 572 general and special election U.S. House contests during this 123-year period (82.7 percent), while Democrats won just 95 races (16.6 percent). Four third party candidates were also elected.

Despite sending Republicans to D.C. in droves, Iowa U.S. House elections were often quite competitive. From 1882 to 1890, for example, Republicans won 40 of 55 general election races (73 percent), but still 38 of these 55 contests were decided by less than 10 points (69 percent).

Since 1982, however, when the current redistricting code went into effect, only 18 of 80 races have been competitive, or just 19 percent. The decade prior to its enactment, 1972 to 1980, yielded competitive House races at a rate of 43 percent.

The only legislative maps that generated a lower amount of competitive races than the current 2002 map were from the Civil War era (1862-1870, 6.7 percent), the Roaring Twenties (1922-1930, 5.5 percent), World War II and the early Cold War period (1942-1950, 12.5 percent), and the Reagan-Bush years (1982-1990; 13.3 percent).

(Note: the drawing of district lines is but one way to increase the level of competitiveness, and it is not a stated priority of the Iowa Code. In fact, the statute expressly forbids past electoral results be taken into consideration when devising new maps. It is also true the heightened polarization of national political parties may be partially to blame for the dearth of competition, including in Iowa, where rural, more conservative areas of the state are less attracted to Democratic candidates than they would have been in the past, just like urban more liberal areas are not as likely to find common ground with Republican candidates).

Competitiveness in Iowa U.S. House Elections Since Statehood by Congressional District Map

Period
Seats
Competitive races
Percent competitive
MoV
2002-2008
5
4
20.0
15.9
1992-2000
5
7
28.0
24.0
1982-1990
6
4
13.3
30.6
1972-1980
6
13
43.3
16.9
1962-1970
7
15
42.9
15.0
1952-1960
8
14
35.0
16.3
1942-1950
8
5
12.5
18.7
1932-1940
9
27
60.0
10.1
1922-1930
11
3
5.5
33.9
1912-1920
11
14
25.5
29.9
1902-1910
11
18
32.7
17.6
1892-1900
11
21
38.2
12.9
1882-1890
11
38
69.1
8.5
1872-1880
9
14
31.1
18.0
1862-1870
6
2
6.7
23.3
1852-1860
2
7
70.0
6.9
1847-1850
2
6
100.0
4.5

1 Comment on "Iowa’s Congressional District Map 5th Least Competitive in 17 Decades"

  1. Rather than blaming districting for the lack of competitive races it seems more appropriate to blame national party dominance over local politics. When the local candidates cannot be fielded that represent the interests of their constituents because they do not comply with the positions of the party bosses, the solution isn’t to redistrict so as to give the party boss platform a better shot, but to let the representative process work from the grassroots as is the purpose of representative government.

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