West of Des Moines, at a recent rally for Republican House candidate Zach Nunn, Jack Wharton rattled off a list of his top voting issues.
“Just like everybody else, inflation is right up there” — he held a flat hand up next to his head. “Abortion is way down here, nonexistent” — he dropped his hand toward his hip — “I don’t care about that.”
He finished by tacking on a few more issues he worries about: “The border, the economy, the military.”
Wharton, a lifelong Republican, said he doesn’t like his current representative, Democrat Cindy Axne, because she “supports Biden’s agenda.” His is Iowa’s 3rd District, which covers Des Moines and much of the state’s southwestern quarter and includes Panora, a town of 1,100. Karen Riley Sievers went to a coffee shop there to see Axne the day after Nunn’s rally. Her top issues?
“Women’s choice for our reproductive [rights],” she said. “And beyond that, I think we have to stop and think that what we’re really dealing with, bottom line, is democracy, and inflation will not make a bit of difference if you don’t have the system that allows you to do the fair voting and to have your voice heard.”
Neither Sievers nor Wharton’s top issues are remarkable — voters across the country, in a variety of races, are worried about all these things. But that very homogeneity is a sign of a trend.
“A nationalized politics is one in which the same kinds of issues are resonant nationwide,” says Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of The Increasingly United States, a book about the nationalization of U.S. politics — the way that national-level political narratives end up trumping local- and state-level concerns. For example, topics that have often played large roles in local and regional politics in Iowa – agriculture, trade, and education — rarely came up in conversations with voters, or in campaign speeches.
Two different party universes
Both parties see this district as potentially pivotal in winning the House, and the race will be hard-fought — the Cook Political Report currently lists it as “Lean Republican.” Close races at a time when Congress is closely divided can further prompt voters to think nationally, Hopkins says.
“You know, if you think back, at least one branch of Congress has been up for grabs or has actually changed hands in basically every election since 2000,” he said.
One sign of nationalization is when candidates symbolically invoke politicians from elsewhere.
In a fiery early-October speech to the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame, Axne invoked an Ohio congressman as a specter of the dangers of GOP rule.
“If we don’t hold the House, folks, Jim Jordan becomes head of Judiciary, begins impeachment proceedings against the president, drags him through the mud for two years so we don’t win the presidential election, and we lose it all,” she said.
Similarly, when asked at the Nunn event about the causes of inflation, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought a Massachusetts senator into campaigning for an Iowa House race.
“Don’t let them kid you — this price increase doesn’t belong to Vladimir Putin. It belongs to President Biden. It belongs to Senator [Elizabeth] Warren,” he said.
In a nationalized political ecosystem, each party has its own system of symbols and language. Even knowledgeable voters in Iowa may not know a lot of specifics about Warren or Jordan’s politics, but they only need to know enough to know that Warren is unapologetically progressive, or that Jordan is pugilistic and conservative.
The logic of voting nationally
Often the nationalization of politics is cast as bad for voters and democracy as a whole, for a number of reasons. One is that it flattens geographical representation, meaning regional issues like agriculture and economic development get less attention.
Another is that it reduces the importance of candidate quality and qualifications, making party the most important factor; one basic measure of nationalization is the decline of split-ticket voting.
That means elections become referenda on party leadership — for example, Donald Trump or Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi. In fact, the relentless, vitriolic focus within the Republican Party on Pelosi as a villain is now receiving renewed scrutiny in light of the recent violent attack on her husband.
All of these things can come together to feed into increasing partisan sorting and polarization.
But it’s not necessarily unreasonable for voters to latch onto national-level issues. Many Americans are understandably worried about democracy at a time when lies about who won the 2020 presidential election are widespread. Similarly, many do fear — or hope for — a federal abortion ban.
All of which means that candidates have additional reason to feed into the cycle of nationalization.
“It’s not that voters are rational or irrational; it’s that our current highly nationalized political system has us in a groove where we focus on a set of symbolic, emotionally fraught, easily available and accessible issues that are prominent and resonant across the country,” Hopkins said.
Local issues haven’t entirely disappeared — they’re still one way to show constituents that you’re doing your job. At that coffee shop in Panora, Axne highlighted how the recent infrastructure bill would benefit the region: “We’re getting $5 billion here in Iowa for infrastructure, and that money can be used for our bus system, our ‘trolley system’ as we call it for so many people in southwest Iowa, which is truly a lifeline for many of them.”
But then, at least one politician is defiantly, bluntly speaking out in favor of this nationalized environment. The next day, Nunn appeared at a Republican fundraising event where the star speaker was Arkansas Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And she was blunt about the benefits of thinking on a national scale:
“I hear that all the time around campaigning for governor in Arkansas — ‘She’s nationalizing the race.’ And my answer to those people is, you bet I am,” Huckabee Sanders told the crowd. “Because if you are not paying attention to what is happening in Washington, you are missing what is happening in this country.”
And if you’re, say, a potential 2024 presidential candidate speaking in an early caucus state — like Iowa — nationalizing your race might make strategic sense.