Iowa, Partisanship, and Identity: An Interview with Rob Sand

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“The most underappreciated thing about Iowa’s swing towards Trump is that it’s actually a thing of consistency. We stuck with the outsider.

We picked the change candidate in 2008 and stuck with the change candidate in 2012 against a caricature of what a Democrat wants to run against in a Republican. In 2016, we went with the outsider and stuck with him in 2020. The Democratic Party nominated the quintessential insider in 2016 and 2020, and both times, Iowa stuck with the person who’s going to shake up a political system that is fundamentally broken. Whether or not he shakes it up in the right way is something I’m fundamentally going to disagree with many Iowans on, but it is what it is.”

It’s a line you often hear from political scientists and analysts, who point out that Mitt Romney ran one of the few races that saw educational depolarization over the course of a cycle, temporarily reversing a thirty-year trend in American politics, and that part of the reason for Donald Trump’s victory was because his platform actually broke from Republican orthodoxy in a striking way. So when you hear one of the few remaining Iowa statewide Democrats mention it himself, it makes you wonder whether he might be onto something.

An election map of Sand’s victory in 2018, demonstrating significant electoral strength in the northwestern and northeastern parts of Iowa relative to the performances of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Elected as the Auditor of Iowa in 2018, Rob Sand’s election was the first time a Democratic challenger defeated an incumbent Republican in 34 years, with the last instance being Tom Harkin’s 1984 triumph over freshman GOP Senator Roger Jepsen. Split Ticket was able to interview Sand on his background, his thoughts regarding electoral politics, our political system, and his own elections.

The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Split Ticket: You wrote a book, “The Winning Ticket“, with Reid Forgrave, talking about the lottery scam that you prosecuted as assistant Attorney General of Iowa. Can you start off by talking about that and how it influenced your decision to run for auditor, and how it may have impacted your statewide profile?

Rob Sand: Yeah. So, it actually was a huge motivator for two reasons — number one, I think that accountability for powerful people is incredibly important, and what I was doing at the AG’s office, I was prosecuting largely financial crimes and a lot of public corruption. Prosecuting Democrats and Republicans, and prosecuting statewide employees who had a lot of taxpayer money. You know, going after people in positions of trust and power who abused that trust and power. That job really was what helped me get to know and understand the auditor’s office and what it does.

I tend to think that if you have a good process — if people feel included and heard, and if you trust the process and trust the people in the process — you would get better outcomes, and that’s really important to me. From my work at the AG’s office, I got to know people at the auditor’s office; I worked with the auditor’s office, because their investigation would come and land on my desk.

Criminal prosecution is really dark work. There are no days where you get up and say “this is joyful, this is fun — I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now”. Your work is fundamentally based on some of the worst things that people can do to other people. That was wearing on me, and I wanted to do something that would let me have more of a positive impact while also using some of my experience. I work with the same people I worked with at the AG’s office, working on public corruption investigations, but we also got to start our government efficiency program PIE, which has been so effective that it’s been copied by the [Republican] state auditor of Mississippi.

I love that program. I’m really proud of it. I ran for this office because I wanted to do something positive rather than focusing on mitigating bad things. Honest question for you guys: when was the last time a public official from one party copied a public official from another party in another state? We can all say Obamacare, because that was all sort of based on RomneyCare, but name another one? I can’t. And for me, that’s a measure of how good that program is. It’s so good that a Republican from Mississippi is willing to say that he got it from a Democrat, which I think is an indication of how effective the program is.

Split Ticket: That’s true. I can’t think of many other examples of effusive bipartisan praise since Chris Christie had his career ended over a tarmac handshake in 2012 with Barack Obama.

I assume you brought up your experience as assistant AG in your 2018 campaign, and I assume it resonated with voters, given the publicity of the lottery scam. What aspect of your experience did you find had the most impact engaging with voters? Because you had to flip the votes of a lot of folks who voted for President Trump in 2016.

Rob Sand: Well, a lot of this has less to do with politics and more to do with who I am. My parents were registered independents at the time, when I was growing up. They later switched and registered as Democrats, but I was raised in a household where we voted for both parties. Life to us was not about partisanship, but was about bigger things, like values and character.

The part of the country where I come from (the Driftless Area) is the epicenter of Obama-Trump swing voters. And I think that my view of what politics should be is similar to a lot of those people. Because at the end of the day, I would say the same thing to any voter in 2018 as I would say today or in 2005, which is that this shouldn’t be about the letter behind your name. We should be focused on ideas, on doing what’s right for people…and that we have a political system that does not do that.

I ran two positive advertisements in 2018, and there was at least one line that I repeated in both of them: that I prosecuted both Democrats and Republicans in the Attorney General’s office. 

Split Ticket: Defeating an incumbent is a very tough thing to do in Iowa. A lot of other candidates tried to use that strategy of “it’s not just the letter besides my name, but rather about who I am”, and it didn’t work for them. You strongly outran Fred Hubbel, the 2018 gubernatorial nominee, in several areas. How did you differentiate yourself from the other Democrats on the ticket who weren’t victorious?

Rob Sand: Most people, if they talk about partisanship, they kind of give it lip service. There are very few people who take it head-on, and that’s one of the things that I did. You couldn’t hear me talk in 2018 without hearing me talk about partisanship. You make a fair point that a lot of people talk about it and that it hasn’t worked out for them, but on the other hand, Barack Obama said “we worship an awesome God in the blue states”, and he won Iowa twice.

I don’t think this is complicated. The most under-appreciated thing about Iowa’s swing towards Trump is that it’s actually a thing of consistency. We stuck with the outsider. We picked the change candidate in 2008 and stuck with the change candidate in 2012 against a caricature of what a Democrat wants to run against in a Republican. In 2016, we went with the outsider and stuck with him in 2020. The Democratic Party nominated the quintessential insider in 2016 and 2020, and both times, Iowa stuck with the person who’s going to shake up a political system that is fundamentally broken. Whether or not he shakes it up in the right way is something I’m fundamentally going to disagree with many Iowans on, but it is what it is.

Split Ticket: You bring up an interesting point here, which is that in 2012, you mention that Democrats ran against a caricature of a Republican: Mitt Romney, who they painted as a corporate plutocrat who was going to ravage small businesses and family farms. One thing we’ve seen is that areas with low levels of degree attainment tended to swing the hardest against Democrats from 2012 to 2016 and then 2016 to 2020, as educational polarization widens. There’s a huge debate in Democratic politics ongoing about whether you can reverse that…

Rob Sand: *laughs* Which, by the way, is the dumbest possible question. I understand why you’re asking it — your characterization is fair and accurate, and I’m not insulting you. I’m just disagreeing with the people who say that it can’t be changed. Mayor Pete said that it isn’t written anywhere that the states that are red now have to stay red forever. They weren’t red eight years ago. I think the fundamental piece people miss is when they say red states are “too far gone”. No, they’re not! You’re running candidates that don’t resonate with those people.

Split Ticket: On the note of candidates that resonate, people talk a lot about the educational divide, but we don’t focus as much on other aspects, like religion in politics and its impact. You’ve been open about being a Lutheran. In the parts of Iowa that are highly religious, you tended to do well in quite a few of them, especially compared to 2016 and 2020 Democratic margins. How important do you think religion is in electoral politics?

Rob Sand: I think it is important, especially among swing voters. There are definitely voters who want to vote for someone who shares their faith, but there are also voters that just want to vote for someone who’s open enough to share the underlying reasons for their faith and the motivations behind their beliefs. There’s a bunch of people who say “I need to vote for a Christian”, but there’s a lot of voters who just want to know who they’re voting for.

Some Trump voters would feel comfortable voting for a Sikh candidate if they had the opportunity to understand the candidate’s Sikhism and how it motivates their politics. And that’s harder — it’s not as automatic of a process for a lot of voters. But I do think there’s that group of people out there that just want to know who you are and what motivates you.

Split Ticket: Well, one thing that ties into this is that Democrats did better with the Catholic vote in 2020 than they did in 2016. Some estimates even have Joe Biden [a practicing Catholic] doing better with the Catholic vote than Barack Obama in 2012, which is really hard to imagine in this day and age. So, tying into your point about voters wanting to know about a candidate’s belief and background, does it make sense for the party to run more candidates that share the faith of segments of the electorate in these areas [if they want to claw back votes]?

Rob Sand: Authenticity is the key. Don’t run someone who, for the first time in their life, started talking about religion…

Split Ticket: I mean, Donald Trump…

Rob Sand: Yeah, but people weren’t voting for him because he was a Christian. They were voting for him because he said they would do things that people who shared their own view of their faith wanted. On top of that, there also is the Christian Nationalist piece of that, where Christian pastors out there were saying “He’s sent for us — for our people”.

Split Ticket: Okay, so touching on the more cultural aspects of campaigns — there’s this “culturally conservative” aspect of voters, and many folks have mentioned that Democrats tend to struggle with these voters. But very few people are specific about what this means, and I get the sense that it varies a lot based on the area. In places like Iowa, where you’ve said it’s possible to win back these voters, what does this entail? And what does being culturally conservative actually entail?

Rob Sand: Good question. It’s as simple as saying “to broaden our appeal, we have to broaden the number of people that our words communicate with”. I yearn for the kind of unity that I think we are supposed to have in terms of understanding that we put our nationality or state identity ahead of our political affiliations. But when we use tribalist language and fashionable words, whether it’s on the right or the left, what we do is send signals to people about whether or not they share our views and also about whether or not we’re in the same tribe. And the fundamental answer is that we are in the same tribe. I would love to see a return to the mindfulness that there are a lot of people out there whose lives are not consumed by politics, and if we are neglecting to use ordinary, everyday language to describe the issues that we see in these people’s lives, then we’re not going to be able to reach these people that easily.

Split Ticket: The median voter isn’t that tuned into the intricacies of policies, but they do see what’s on TV and what’s being said on the campaign trail. So is it that you have to be mindful of what people want to hear?

Rob Sand: It’s less about what they want to hear and more about what they can feel from what you say. I am hard pressed to think of any labels that have real meaning behind them in modern politics. You can literally be a Republican in the sense that you’re a registered Republican. But even amongst Republicans, you put five or ten Republicans in a room, and within ten minutes, they’ll be like “Pfft. You’re no Republican!”

If I use all these words — Republican, Democrat, Independent, conservative, liberal, progressive — none of them mean the same thing to everyone that hears them. Labels have lost all meaning. And so when we label ourselves, we’re saying to some people “I’m one of you”, and that’s fine, I guess, if you want to lead a tribe. But if you want to lead a people, then we’ve got to find ways to make ourselves more accessible and more relatable to a lot of people.

Split Ticket: So on a related note, one thing we’ve noticed is that candidates who break with their national party on issues actually tend to outperform an electoral baseline, so to speak. And this is not to reduce the issue of connecting with people to one of electoral politics; it’s just that the angle our site approaches analysis is through electoral politics…

Rob Sand: *laughs* I appreciate that you say that, because there are ways to be electorally successful that are socially destructive. If you’re tearing the social fabric but are tearing it so that 60% of it is on your side, (sarcastically) congratulations, I guess, because you’ve managed to destroy something really amazing that took generations to build.

Split Ticket: Joe Manchin actually suggested to Chuck Schumer that he become an independent who caucuses with Democrats if it helped Schumer explain [the difficulty of negotiations] better. Kyrsten Sinema is similar in that she’s trying to position herself opposite of the party. In a lot of cases, if those candidates get through a primary, what we find is that the base usually turns out in the big elections and they still get crossover appeal. Do you think there’s actually value to running as a “no-labels” candidate, like independents, in red territory — sort of like what Evan McMullin is doing in Utah?

Rob Sand: Yeah, I do. But you can’t just make it up on the spot. The same voters who you’re trying to appeal to are typically savvy enough to spot fakers. Say what you want about Donald Trump, he was authentically not an establishment Democrat or an establishment Republican. And then the question becomes: okay, so that might be politically useful, but are you doing it in a way that’s a public service that is meant to add and improve to our society as opposed to tearing it apart?

Split Ticket: For Democrats in swingy states that aren’t ruby red, like Iowa, what issues would you say candidates need to define themselves on in comparison to the national platform? Because candidates can only really define themselves [uniquely] on a certain set of issues while still looking authentic to the party that they represent, so you do have to pick and choose your battles. Which ones would you say electorally play a little bit more problematically in Iowa with the national platform?

Rob Sand: Well, I’m not giving advice to the national Democratic Party — they don’t give a s**t what I have to say on this. On those people you were mentioning earlier, am I correct that Chuck Schumer had a signed agreement with Joe Manchin saying they weren’t going to go over $1.7T and then he was still out there talking about a $3T Build Back Better?

Split Ticket: Yes, I think so.

Rob Sand: I mean, if that happened, shame on him. So, you know — I guess, at the end of the day, I don’t want to tell other people what to do. I’m just doing what I do, and telling people what I think. The things that I push on are anti-partisanship. Giving independents the equal right to participate in our political system. Changing our voting system so that we’re not just constantly picking the lesser of two evils on the November ballot — electoral reform. I don’t care what party leaders feel strongly about, but I can only speak from my own experience. I’m constantly disgusted with our political system and the partisanship of it. And yet I also think we can change the system to have it work in a way that is actually much more effective.

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.