By: Benjamin Williams
When average Americans think of Iowa, they likely picture pastoral scenes apropos for a Norman Rockwell painting. What they may not realize is that sleepy Iowa is an election law trailblazer, with what some consider to be the most ambitions—and most successful—redistricting reform law on the books in the United States today. Iowa’s reform charges the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) with redrawing the maps in the State after each census. The LSA looks to traditional redistricting criteria like compactness and contiguity, but it is also banned from looking at several categories of so-called “political data,” including (1) voter registration statistics, (2) election results, and (3) the addresses of incumbent legislators. The legislature then receives the maps and has the right to approve or reject them via an up-or-down vote. Since the reapportionment following the 1980 Census, no LSA plan has ever reached a third vote in either the state House or Senate. The races in these politics-blind districts create competition, with the Boston Globe describing them as some of the “country’s hardest fought races.”
But do these statistics and other information actually result in competitive districts? Of Iowa’s four congressional districts, three are currently occupied by Republicans. In this analysis, I survey the following benchmarks: (1) presence of opposition from the other major political party; (2) ability of challengers to raise more than 10% of the total amount of cash as incumbents; and (3) ability of challengers to raise more than $10,000 overall. While these benchmarks may seem absurdly low, an analysis of Congressional races across the country reveals the stark anti-competitiveness of the races considered as a whole. In 342 of 441 total races for all House seats this year (both voting and non-voting), the challenger failed to raise at least 10% of the total amount of money as did the incumbent. Additionally, in 188 of 441 House races this year, the challenger with the most money had raised less than $10,000. If we accept that funds raised is a critical barometer of competitiveness, these numbers reveal how non-competitive House races truly are this election cycle. With this in mind, we turn to the application of these criteria to Iowa.
In all four of Iowa’s Congressional races, the incumbent is running for re-election and the opposing major party (either Democratic or Republican) has put forward a candidate to contest the seat. Second, two of Iowa’s four competitors raised within 10% of the funds raised by the incumbent. This means 50% of Iowa’s congressional seats are at least minimally competitive, as compared to 22.4% of all national races—a more than twofold increase. And third, all four of Iowa’s competitors have raised at least $10,000. That 100% figure far outstrips the national average of 54.3%, nearly doubling that number.
But what can these data points tell us about the relative competitiveness of Iowa’s House races? To be sure, this analysis makes several assumptions: (1) that only the opposing major party can lodge a successful challenge to an incumbent from a major political party; (2) that a candidate cannot succeed without raising proportional sums of money, potentially neglecting unique candidates who benefit from so-called “free media;” (3) that other factors not controlled for, such as demographic makeup and presence of majority-minority districts mandated by the Voting Rights Act, could be skewing the data; and (4) that this election cycle is an apt model for calculating competitiveness. However, when compared to other states claimed to have enacted “reforms,” such as Florida or Arizona, Iowa’s success comes into clearer focus.
In Arizona, all nine seats are challenged by the other major party, but only two of those nine challengers have raised within 10% of the total funds of the incumbent—a total of 22.2%, just below the national average. Additionally, only six of nine challengers have raised over $10,000, for a total of 66.7%, a mere 10% above the national average. Florida tells much the same story: while 26 of 27 seats are contested by the other major party, only six of those 27 candidates have raised within 10% of the incumbent, while 25 of 27 have raised at least $10,000. This tells us that while Florida candidates do a decent job of hurdling over the $10,000 threshold, only 22.2% of candidates—the exact same number as in Arizona—raised within 10% of the total dollar amount as the incumbent.
These statistics indicate that Iowa’s redistricting reform, while not achieving full competitiveness, have achieved success both relative to the national average and relative to other states with supposedly strong redistricting reforms. While more analysis, beyond the scope of this blog post, would be needed to verify the efficacy of the reform, cursory examination indicates that the desired effects Iowa legislators hoped to achieve—removing partisan considerations from redistricting and making congressional races more competitive—have been realized.
Note: To check out the data used for this post, click 10.18 – House Races by Party and Fundraising Chart__2016__Federal.