Iowa isn’t used to causing late-night jitters for presidential campaigns. Early 20th-century Sen. Jonathan Dolliver once proclaimed with confidence that “Iowa will go Democratic when Hell goes Methodist.” In fact, until recently, Republicans ruled with little challenge in presidential elections, even after Elmer Carlson shoved a mule into the elevator of Chicago’s Palmer Hotel at the 1952 Democratic National Convention. Dwight Eisenhower took 64 percent of the Iowa vote that year.
Now, Iowa is a classic swing state, befitting a territory that was one of the first in the nation to practice crop rotation.
Iowa sends one senator of each party to Washington. The House delegation consists of three Democrats and two Republicans. One chamber of the state Legislature is controlled by Democrats, the other by Republicans — and the state Senate has 25 Democrats and 24 Republicans.
Retired Iowa state historian Dorothy Schwieder titled her 1996 book “Iowa: The Middle Land” and sketched Iowa as conservative in politics but liberal in social outlook — and always choosing a middle ground.
“Iowa, unlike Midwestern states to the east, has not become predominantly industrial, and unlike Midwestern states to the west, has not remained mostly agricultural,” she wrote. “Rather, in politics, in economics, in social values and social actions, Iowa can still be defined as the middle land.”
The middle ground is a recurrent theme in this state, whose 55,869 square miles of land provide fully a quarter of the top-grade agricultural land in the country.
Indeed, the 1938 WPA Guide to Iowa, noting “the rich land, remarkably uniform diffusion of the population, traditions of culture and tolerance,” spoke of a “successful experiment in living” that has been achieved “in this fertile middle ground between the congested districts of the East and the more sparsely settled West.”
Social movements have moved across Iowa like the glaciers that shaped it — recurrent farm revolts, the Social Gospel, Prohibition, modern liberalism, and then a surging religious conservatism that has surpassed mainline Protestantism in its political if not its social influence.