We spent last week driving all over Iowa, but Des Moines was our home base. That’s generally true for candidates as well: They campaign across Iowa, but spend most of their time in the capital. There were candidate events in Des Moines every single day last week, starting with the Brown and Black Presidential Forum at Drake University on Monday night and ending with the live taping of “Morning Joe” with guest Donald Trump at Java Joes Coffeehouse downtown on Friday.
But not one of our trips to events and field offices in Des Moines took us to the southern and eastern parts of the city.1 As the week wore on, it became clear that the parts of the city farther east of the Des Moines River and south toward the airport — where population and median home values drop significantly compared with the western areas of Des Moines — were far less frequented by candidates.
You can’t blame candidates for focusing on the most populous areas of Des Moines, but there are neighborhoods in south and east Des Moines with just as many people (or more) as the western areas that no candidate, Democratic or Republican, has visited during this campaign cycle. And those areas are poorer than the candidate-hives in West Des Moines.
According to data from The Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, there have been 416 events (314 for GOP candidates and 102 for the Democrats) in the greater Des Moines urban area since Nov. 17, 2012. For Republican candidates, 85 percent of these events took place in the westernmost areas of Des Moines. For the Democratic candidates, 82 percent were in these same neighborhoods. Only 36 events have occurred south of Raccoon River, and even fewer — 22 events — have taken place east of downtown Des Moines. 2
Once we realized the candidates weren’t visiting areas east or south of Des Moines, we decided to go. Driving around eastern Des Moines, we could immediately see why not many candidates ventured east across the railroad tracks, where there are far fewer businesses and homes. The population density in the easternmost city that had an event, Pleasant Hill (a meet-and-greet for Carly Fiorina at a former mayor’s house in October 2015) is just under 1,000 people per square mile, compared with the most dense areas of Des Moines, where the population is almost seven times greater.
But population doesn’t entirely explain why no candidate had stopped near Grand View University or in the Capitol Heights neighborhood, two areas near Pleasant Hill where the population density is closer to 6,000 people per square mile. The same is true in areas of southern Des Moines, around South Park and Jordan Park, where the population density is almost five times greater than the farthest west areas in West Des Moines.
So we decided to also look at the median home values in the areas candidates aren’t going.
Candidates are less likely to visit poorer neighborhoods outside of downtown Des Moines.
Median home values in some of the most affluent areas in Des Moines are more than $200,000, but that drops to $117,600 in Des Moines city proper. In the poorest census tract shown (in southern Des Moines near the airport) there has been just one candidate event, a Bobby Jindal town hall meeting at the Fort Des Moines Museum, where the median home value is $32,500. There haven’t been any events in the next-poorest census tract, the one directly east of downtown, where median home values are $66,900.
At Skip’s, a restaurant in the more affluent area of southern Des Moines, Molly Freel, the lunch-shift bartender, told us that Bernie Sanders was just there a few days earlier eating lunch, but she didn’t have any good reasons why the candidates didn’t come south more often to host events. “We’re so close to the airport, this would be a perfect place to stop,” she said. “The candidates just don’t come to the south side.”