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What's the Matter With Iowa?

There’s no state is more associated with  Obama’s meteoric ascent to the Presidency than Iowa, but four years later the state is in a dead heat. As political observers grasp at straws to figure out why, some have settled on one emerging narrative: that Obama’s decline here is unique,  and has to do with Iowan voters' particularly high and unmet expectations of hope and change. But while there’s no question that Obama’s standing has declined considerably in the state, there's no need to look for an Iowa-specific explanation. What's going on is much simpler.

In fact, no one should be surprised that Iowa is competitive this year, as Iowa wasn’t even a particularly strong state for Obama in 2008. He won by 9.53 percent, which, while impressive, is just a little more than a net-2 percentage points to the left of the country. Put differently, one would expect Iowa to be close in a close national election—and that’s exactly what the current polls show. Obama leads in Iowa by 2.5 percent in the RCP average, roughly the same amount as Obama leads nationally.

And Obama isn’t suffering greater losses in Iowa than might be expected based on the state’s demographics. Nationally, Obama is suffering big losses among white working class voters, so Obama is vulnerable to disproportionate losses in Iowa, where half of Obama’s 2008 coalition was composed of white voters without a college degree. In other relatively competitive northern states where Democrats depend on the support of white, rural, working class voters—like Wisconsin, Maine, and Oregon—Obama seems to have suffered similar losses in polls conducted since April.

This chart doesn’t reflect very many polls, but the main point still stands: There is not much evidence that Obama is suffering from particularly acute losses in Iowa. It’s worth noting that Obama’s Iowa standing may be inflated by an outlying PPP poll, which shows Obama up 10 points. If excluded, Obama falls to an average of 45 percent in the remaining three polls, which would represent an 8.7 percent decline from 2008.

To be sure, Obama has certainly bled considerable support in Iowa. Those losses, however,  should have been expected. Iowa has hued close to the national popular vote in the last several elections, and the state was sure to be close in a tight national contest, especially since  Obama is unusually dependent on white working class voters— the demographic group primarily responsible for endangering his reelection chances. While it might be tempting to ascribe Obama's weakness to unmet hopes of change, the state's behavior has and everything to do with national fundamentals. There’s just nothing special going on in Iowa.