(CN) — New polling in the battleground state of Iowa shows Democrats taking narrow leads in the presidential and Senate races, suggesting a radical turnaround from President Donald Trump’s 9-point victory there in 2016.
Democrat Joe Biden now leads Trump in Iowa by 3 percentage points (50% to 47%) among likely voters in a scenario with high voter turnout, and 4 points (51% to 46%) with low voter turnout, according to a poll from New Jersey’s Monmouth University.
Incumbent Republican Senator Joni Ernst is also facing a tough challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield: the poll showed a 47% toss-up among all registered voters, but likely voters supported Greenfield by a margin of 2 points in a high-turnout situation and 6 points in a low-turnout scenario.
Greenfield and Biden’s leads fall well within the poll’s 4.4-point margin of error, and pollsters warned that their likely voter models “are not forecasts,” but meant to present “a range of reasonable outcomes based on voter intentions as of this moment.” Polling was conducted by telephone from Oct. 15 through Oct. 19., and 501 registered voters were polled.
“This tracks pretty well with what I’ve been seeing, both nationally and in Iowa, that it’s going to be a close election here, and that the state is pretty divided on both the presidential and the senate race,” Iowa State University political scientist Dave Peterson said in an interview.
When it comes to discussing Iowa’s 99 counties individually, Peterson said, the poll’s sample size was simply too small to yield useful information on most of them.
“There’s no way they have enough people in those counties to talk reasonably about the percentage in some of those counties,” he said.
As far as statewide results, Peterson said, 501 people is “low, but not a terrible sample size.”
About 125 miles east-southeast at the University of Iowa, fellow political scientist Timothy Hagle agreed, adding that a 4.4% margin of error was higher than he’d like.
“If you get anywhere over three, that’s really pushing it,” he said.
Peterson said the high and low turnout models appeared to be a response to Trump’s 2016 upset, in which pollsters theorized that Trump turned out unexpected numbers of voters considered unlikely to go to the polls.
“We’re always fighting the last battle,” he quipped.
Hagle expressed skepticism of the models, but understood their logic.
“The key, really…. I’ll get my Captain Obvious cap on – is turnout,” he said.
A New York Times/Siena College poll also released Wednesday shows similar results. Among 753 likely Iowa voters, 46% support Biden compared to 43% backing Trump. The poll, which has a margin of error of 3.9%, also shows Ernst and Greenfield in a tight race (45% to 44%).
A battleground state in the presidential race, Iowa has also been targeted by Democrats seeking to oust first-term incumbent Ernst, who won her seat in 2014 after the retirement of five-term Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.
Peterson and Hagle agreed that polling aside, Biden appears to be handily outperforming Hillary Clinton, who in 2016 won only 41.7% of votes in the Hawkeye State to Trump’s 51.2%. The Monmouth poll found that Biden holds a commanding lead among seniors-- 54% to Trump’s’ 43% with voters over the age of 65. That demographic, which the poll also found was highly concerned about the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, is well-represented in Iowa and played a major part in Trump’s victory there, Peterson said.
Iowa’s six electoral votes are unlikely to be game-changers in the presidential election, both experts said. The state is more important, however, in Democrats’ push to take control of the Senate.
In the Senate race, the poll looks promising for Greenfield, who led Ernst among independent voters by a 15-point margin and captured slightly more Republican defectors than Ernst did Democrats. That reinforced Hagle and Peterson’s analyses. Both academics called the race a tight one, with Greenfield taking a boost from a 4-1 fundraising advantage and the ability to hit Ernst on her record.
“Ernst is tied pretty closely to Trump, although she has asserted her independence on occasion,” Hagle said. “It’s sort of surprised me that Greenfield hasn’t done more to tie her to Trump,” especially since Ernst’s ads have often sought to tie Greenfield to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Both candidates, meanwhile, have a few more local issues impacting their campaigns. Ernst, Hagle said, has made a point of imitating colleague Chuck Grassley in visiting every county in Iowa once a year, and has knocked Greenfield for failing to do so. Greenfield, meanwhile, had a strong moment in a recent debate when she was able to correctly tell a moderator about the price of corn, while Ernst choked on a similar question about soybeans.
"[Ernst] came off as a) not knowing the answer, and b) a little petulant, even though she didn't think the question was fair,” said Peterson, who disclosed that he supports Greenfield. “And all the Greenfield people have been playing it up."
"It's one of the few times I've ever seen a Senate debate actually matter,” he added.
Hagle was skeptical of that assessment, but agreed that economic issues were central to a 2018 Democratic resurgence in Iowa, especially when it came to independent voters. “They tend to care about the so-called kitchen table issues: jobs, the economy, health care,” he said, adding that could lead to more success for Biden in a blue-collar belt in the state’s northeastern corner.
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