The pundits have sure struggled to get a handle on Iowa this year. In the spring, NBC News classified the state as “Lean Romney” because the disappointment of the Obama presidency was apparently felt most acutely in the state where expectations were highest. Of course, there was never any data to back up the assertion that Iowa leaned Romney, and eventually the state moved back into the toss-up column. After NBC/Marist and other pollsters showed Obama with a growing lead in September, the conventional wisdom on Iowa shifted again—and seemingly strong early voting numbers for Democrats reinforced that view. Then yesterday, Politico reported that Priorities USA internal polling shows a one point race in Iowa—probably Obama’s worst result with respect to expectations—leaving the pundits baffled again by Iowa’s elusiveness. But there’s not much of a mystery about Iowa. It's close and it should be close.
The state is overwhelmingly white and Obama is extremely dependent on the support of white working class voters. Nationally, Obama has suffered considerable losses among these voters, and he has also suffered considerable losses among them in Iowa. And if Democratic caucus-goers held a special connection with the president, it didn’t extend to the general electorate. Obama won Iowa by nearly 10 points in 2008—a fine performance, but hardly exceptional. Bush won Iowa by less 1 point in 2008, so Obama’s 10-point improvement there was exactly the same as Obama’s 10-point improvement nationally. Put differently: there was nothing special about Obama’s performance in Iowa.
Iowa was one of the closest states in 2000 and 2004 and over the last six presidential elections it tilted slightly to the left of the nation as a whole. While the state is under-polled, the big picture is quite straight forward. The state polls show Obama with a narrow lead in Iowa, and that's pretty consistent with the state's history and demographics. If anything, there's a case that Obama is overperforming demographics; if Obama is faring worse than Kerry among white voters, then one would might expect him to fare worse than Kerry in Iowa, a predominantly white state.