Iowa is not a microcosm of America. It is too white and too rural for that. But the vote tonight in the Iowa precinct caucuses will begin to show which Republican candidates run well (or not so well) among a variety of constituencies that will be major participants in the primary balloting to follow.
Iowa’s 99 counties feature small urban centers, academic communities, industrial bastions and evangelical strongholds, as well as a broad swath of small-town America.
In that regard, here are five counties that bear watching as the caucus results come in tonight:
Polk County (Des Moines): Iowa’s Major Urban Center
Almost 20% of the Republican caucus vote in 2008 was cast in Polk County, nearly triple the number cast in any other county. But it is not just the wealth of voters that makes Polk County important, it is also its perspicacity. The county has voted for the winning GOP candidate in all five contests since the Iowa Republican caucuses assumed their current form in 1980.
Black Hawk County (Waterloo): Bachmann’s Birthplace
A strong caucus showing for Michele Bachmann tonight would likely begin in the county of her birth, Black Hawk. It is located in northeast Iowa and is the fourth most populous county in the state. Black Hawk County boasts a long industrial heritage, and, like Polk, has a track record of voting with the statewide winner.
Johnson County (Iowa City): Academic Stronghold
With the University of Iowa dominating the local political landscape, Johnson County has been a haven over the years for moderate Republican candidates. George H.W. Bush trounced Ronald Reagan here in the 1980 GOP caucuses by a margin of better than 3-to-1. Mitt Romney handily carried Johnson County in 2008 with nearly one-third of the vote. But Ron Paul’s student support could make the county quite competitive this time.
Sioux County: Evangelical Terrain
Tucked away in the northwest corner of the state, Sioux County is arguably the most religiously conservative and Republican county in Iowa. Televangelist Robert Schuller had his roots here and the Dutch Reformed tradition is strong. The county gave John McCain 81% of the vote in November 2008. In GOP caucus action, Sioux was one of only three counties in Iowa to be carried by social conservative Gary Bauer in 2000 and was won by Mike Huckabee in 2008 with a majority of the vote. The top vote-getter this time between Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Bachmann will probably also be the strongest of the three statewide.
Madison County: Rural Americana
About an hour’s drive southwest of Des Moines is Madison County, the birthplace of actor John Wayne and the setting of the fictional romance, The Bridges of Madison County. It is the personification of small-town America. After backing Ronald Reagan over George H.W. Bush in 1980, Madison County has supported the statewide Republican caucus winner ever since.