Poll Spells Trouble for Iowa Judge

It looks like another Iowa Supreme Court justice may lose his job this year. Conservatives are once again railing against one of the judges who legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative on the local scene who led an anti-retention campaign against three of the state's supreme court justices in 2010, announced last month that he was spearheading an effort to make sure David Wiggins doesn't succeed at the polls this November.

A Public Policy Polling survey from last week indicates that Vander Plaats's plan is working. Among likely Iowa voters, 38 percent would like to retain Wiggins, while another 38 percent want to send him home. While at first glance that tie might seem positive for Wiggins—in 2010 two of his colleagues lost by 8 percent, one by a ten-point margin—the dynamics don't favor Wiggins.

Many of those likely voters supporting Wiggins might not vote in the retention election—judicial retention votes were notoriously under the radar before 2010. Judges are buried on the back of the ballot, and most Iowans simply skipped that portion after filling out the big-ticket races. While awareness certainly climbed after 2010, the incentives still point toward a higher anti-judge participation rate. Conservatives are the ones riled up and invested in the election. Those who wish to retain Wiggins, on the other hand, are passively maintaining the status quo.

Yet Wiggins's real concern is whether the campaign between now and November will unfold the same way it did in 2010. As I reported last month, Wiggins's liberal supporters seem to have missed many of their own takeaways from the debacle two years ago. When I interviewed the people involved with the 2010 campaign last summer, they told me that liberals would need to be more active next time around, not just combating Vander Plaats with high-minded arguments about fair and impartial courts but truly engaging in politicking by raising money and directly advocating on the justices' behalf. At the moment, those lessons seem to have been discarded. Wiggins's supporters have stuck to running nonprofit organizations that refrain from campaigning expressly for Wiggins.

They seemed to be banking on two assumptions: that Iowans have turned against politicizing retention votes and that Wiggins will run his own campaign. Buyer's remorse is a term they've employed frequently, hypothesizing that many conservatives had a rude awakening after 2010 when they realized removing the justices would have no effect on the state's same-sex marriage laws (that would require an amendment to the state constitution, which, so far, the Democratic majority in the state senate has stymied). The PPP poll indicates otherwise. And while some liberals suggested that Wiggins was in the early stages of creating his own campaign—always said off the record, mostly as hearsay—it's now two months away from the election, and he has taken no public steps toward defending himself.

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