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Iowa’s Purple Counties: Inside the fight for the 31 counties that swung from Obama to Trump

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) -- President Trump will be making a final trip to Iowa in the final weekend of the campaign. On Friday, he announced he would hold a rally in Dubuque on Sunday. It is a strategic stop in an area the President hopes to win.

In 2016 President Trump won the state handily, defeating Hillary Clinton by 9.5 points.

In the same election, Iowa voters handed Republicans victories in the Governor's office and the state legislature. It was a resounding defeat for Iowa Democrats, but far from a knockout blow. Neither party has a firm grip on the state.

In both 2008 and 2012, former President Barack Obama won the Hawkeye State.

"If you look back to the 2000 Presidential election, 2004 Presidential Election, it was within 1 percentage point in both elections," KWWL Political Analyst and Coordinator for the Master of Public Policy Program at the University of Northern Iowa Chris Larimer said. "Unless you have a candidate that's overwhelmingly popular or unpopular, Iowa is probably going to be a swing state just about every presidential election cycle."

In 2016, 31 of the state's 99 counties flipped for President Trump. The most of any state in the country.

That includes the state's entire eastern border along the Mississippi River. Former President Obama won Dubuque County by 14 points in 2012. Four years later, President Trump won the county by 1.2 points. It was the first time the country went for a Republican since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Eric Branstad, a senior advisor for the Trump 2020 campaign, worked on the President's campaign four years ago. He noted the gains came from mostly rural, industrial 'blue-collar' river towns.

"These working men and women, they like this president and they like the opportunities that they've gotten and their wages have risen, through them," he said. "They felt and appreciate it, and they're ready to keep America First."

Swing County Iowa Map

In 2016, 31 counties that went for Former President Obama in 2012 swung for President Trump. It is the most of any state.

Understanding the Flip

The 31 county flip turned heads across the country. To understand why it happened, Larimer said it is important to understand why Iowa is such a swing state.

He said Iowa is a swing state "because of the strong grassroots organization that comes out of the Iowa caucuses, the political geography of the state and the way redistricting works."

According to Larimer, it comes down to voters and geography. There is a sharp divide between rural and urban areas of the Hawkeye state.

"You have the 99 counties, but you can get to half of the active registered voters in just 10 counties," he said. "The urban areas are growing there. It's a younger population in those more urban and suburban areas. They probably lean a little bit more democratic, but they're trying to offset the eighty-plus other counties that are more rural and considerably more conservative."

Larimer said voter registration number shows it is almost an even one-third split between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

In 2016, Buchanan County swung by 17 points. It went for President Obama by nearly 14 points in 2012 before switching to President Trump by 15 points.

Buckley Necker, the Buchanan County Republican chair, said people were looking for a change, and President Trump fit the bill as a political outsider.

"He did not make a career of being in politics and ran because he knew and saw the problems our country was in," Necker said. "He brought a voice and an opinion that many people had about what has been and continues to go on in Washington, and has worked to change the swamp."

The President had a voice and values that Necker said resonated with Buchanan County voters.

"Someone that is hardworking, is patriotic and cares about our country," he said. "Mr. Trump is a person that can inspire the common person to work harder and help to achieve their dreams."

For Democrats, the last four years have been spent dissecting what went wrong and how to win it back.

Former Democratic Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack said the party did not do enough to reach out to voters in rural communities and small towns.

"I don't think Democrats talked about their plans and their vision for a more robust economy as Vice President Biden has," he said. "They didn't talk about the expansion of access to health care in the same way that Vice President Biden has. I think he has made a concerted effort to listen to rural voters and to try to respond with policies that make sense."

The Biden campaign has focused their messaging to rural voters on the economy, infrastructure and rural broadband.

Vilsack said Democrats don't need to win back everything they lost to emerge victorious next week.

"I think it is important for Democrats to do everything they possibly can to get every single vote in every single county, especially be in those rural counties where we have been beaten badly in the past," Vilsack said. "If we can squeeze the margins so that our margins that are grown in suburbs and urban centers are enough to carry the day."

Seeing counties flip is common in Iowa, but Larimer said seeing 31 counties at once flip is an outlier.

"We always talk about partisanship and how dug in everybody is on their party ideals," he said. "To see that many counties flip I think that that was surprising to some people."

Larimer said he does not think it was a case of persuadable voters, rather one of one side doing a better job of motivating their base to turn out.

For both campaigns, that is the name of the game.

"If you can mobilize new voters who you are also pretty confident, lead your way," he said. "That's what it's about."

Former Vice President Joe Biden held a drive-in rally in Iowa on Friday.

KWWL will have full coverage of President Trumps trip to Dubuque on Sunday on-air and online.