Did COVID-19 campaign changes hurt Iowa Democrats?

Democrat Theresa Greenfield gave her victory speech on social media after winning her party's nomination for U.S. Senate. (Screen shot from Greenfield Facebook video)

Even in a year where a pandemic has shaken up typical campaigning, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst still completed one Iowa tradition: A 99-county tour, also known as “the full Grassley.”

Though she was criticized on social media for holding town halls when the Centers for Disease Control is recommending limiting them, the cross-county tour may have provided a boost for the sitting senator, said Tim Hagle, political science professor at the University of Iowa.

The “full Grassley” is named after Iowa’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, who completes the county circuit every year.

In sharp contrast, Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield limited her number of in-person events out of precaution to stop the spread of the virus, she said. She held 200-plus events, including Zoom calls.

That mitigation measure may have hurt Greenfield’s ability to connect with independent voters, however, Hagle said. Though it’s not the main reason she lost, he said, it could play a part in it.

Independents, who make up a large percentage of Iowa’s electorate, are less attuned to politics and are more likely to decide last-minute who they want to vote for based on “gut feeling” and their daily concerns, he said.

Seeing a candidate in-person can help create connections with voters who are still on the fence and humanize a politician, Hagle said.

On election night, Ernst defeated Greenfield, 52% to 45%, according to unofficial results.

“They would criticize the Republicans, ‘Oh, this is your super-spreader event type of thing,’” Hagle said. “On the other hand, getting around to those counties is important.”

Monica Biddix, former spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic Party and former state director for presidential candidate John Delaney, said she believes the lack of in-person events minimally hurt Greenfield.

Rep. Heather Matson is a Democrat from Ankeny. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

Instead, the pain was felt more in down-ticket Legislative races. Incumbent Iowa House Democrats Heather Matson of Ankeny and Karin Derry of Johnston both lost in tight races against Republicans.

“People made decisions based on everyone’s personal safety and not for political reasons,” Biddix said. “We’re trying to keep people safe.”

Do town halls and canvassing matter? It depends.

Unlike states like California, where widespread canvassing is next to impossible, Iowans expect politicians to hold traditional town halls at their schools or churches, Hagle said.

This may come from the caucuses, Hagle said, where top-name politicians descend on the state and are obliged to eat at Pizza Ranch and hold a conversation.

These events are key to reaching independent voters, as Democrats and Republicans have already decided who they’re going to vote for, Hagle said.

In Iowa, more than 2 million people are registered to vote. Of those, 659,488 are registered as no-party.

Instead, Hagle said Greenfield’s campaign focused heavily on advertising.

While the Senate race was heavily funded by both parties, Greenfield raised $40.4 million to Ernst’s $22.2 million. She spent $30.2 million and ended September with $9.5 million cash on hand.

“They tried to paint Ernst as ‘gone Washington,'” Hagle said. “Well, if she’s showing up to your community, a mom and veteran, and she emphasizes those points, then those ‘gone Washington’ ads aren’t going to be particularly effective,” Hagle said. “That’s why you have to go out and meet people to get those messages across.”

But Biddix said congressional races are typically won through large television and digital ad buys.

She attributes Greenfield’s loss to Iowans’ enthusiasm for President Donald Trump.

“If it was a normal election, Theresa Greenfield would have gone out to more rural areas and had a traditional campaigning style,” Biddix said. “I don’t think it would make that much of a difference. I think it shows the power of having Trump at the top of the ticket.”

Biddix said people who decided not to vote in 2018 came out to elect Trump in 2020 and voted down-ticket as well.

Biden didn’t gain much traction flipping rural areas. The same six counties that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 also went for Biden this year: Story, Polk, Black Hawk, Linn, Johnson and Scott.

The rest favored Trump.

“I don’t think Mitt Romney energized Iowa Republicans or no parties, but for some reason, Trump has energized them,” Biddix said.