Playing the Blues in a Deeply Red State
Corey Cook, Professor of Politics is currently on leave but is still a critical observer of local, state and national politics. Professor Cook regularly contributes to the Leo T. McCarthy Center blog while he establishes the School of Public Service at Boise State University.
Idaho was one of a handful of states that rejected both major party candidates during the nomination process. Both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were dealt decisive defeats during the Idaho Democratic Caucus, and Idaho Republican Primary, respectively. Sure, turnout was low in both contests, but neither was particularly close. Trump received 28% in the primary, losing to Ted Cruz and finishing ahead of only John Kasich and a rapidly sinking Marco Rubio who withdrew his candidacy a week later. Secretary Clinton fared even more poorly, scoring only 21% of caucus goes against Bernie Sanders’ 78%.
So suffice it tosay that folks in Idaho don’t seem too jazzed about next week’s election. At Boise State University, we’ve held debate watch events, hosted panels, and generally talked a lot about the election. But the more I talk with folks the more I get the sense that neither outcome will be particularly appealing to Idahoans. One prominent state Republican confided about the challenge this election has posed to mainstream conservatives – that neither candidate represents his values. Still, nobody expects the race in Idaho to be particularly close – in fact, the word on the street is that the results here will be quite similar to those in 2008 and 2012.
I’m still getting up to speed on Idaho politics, but it seems to me to be a mix of Alaska and Utah. Yet this race is playing out quite differently than in those comparable states. As in Idaho, both Clinton and Trump were defeated by Sanders and Cruz in the Alaska caucuses (Trump lost narrowly while Clinton was defeated by a similar 4-1 margin). And prominent Alaska Republicans, including both United States Senators, have withdrawn their support of Trump. Yet recent polls suggest that the candidates are neck and neck. The most recent survey has Secretary Clinton in the lead. The last time Alaska voted for a Democrat for president? 1964.
In Utah, something similarly remarkable, yet quite different, is happening. As in Idaho, Trump and Clinton lost their respective caucuses. Only in this case, Trump came in third (and last) behind Cruz and Kasich while Sanders defeated Clinton by a 4-1 margin. But in Utah, where Democrats seem willing to line up behind their nominee, opposition to Trump has fueled the independent candidacy of little/un- known Congressional staffer Evan McMullin into a highly competitive position. Some recent surveys have the three candidates locked into a dead heat. Trump is wildly unpopular (a recent survey had him at a net negative favorability of -43 points, an astonishing figure). And McMullin has gained some positive attention and has an outside chance to win the state. The last time a Democrat won in Utah? 1964. The last time a minor candidate had a chance of winning? Maybe never.
This has been one of the interesting themes of this election. As Democrats and Republicans grapple with wildly and historically unpopular nominees, traditional voting patterns have been disrupted. And down ballot races might be affected in ways that won’t be clear until after the election.
And yet Idaho, despite its similarities to Alaska and Utah, seems ready to reprise its previous vote tallies. Alternative candidates have failed to gain traction and despite the clear unpopularity of the two nominees, fellow partisans seem to have fallen into line.
Despite polls showing the race getting closer as election day nears, the potential for a generational partisan realignment remain significant. Just focusing on the traditional red state, consider some political implications. If Secretary Clinton wins, what will happen in Alaska, Utah, and Idaho to the growing gulf between mainstream conservatives and Trump voters? Will they coalesce as in Idaho, disintegrate into competing blocs as in Utah, or weaken allegiance to the party as in Alaska? And if Trump wins, how will governance change in those places? Will mainstream conservatives holding Senatorial seats and Governor’s mansions work effectively with the Trump White House, or will these splits emerge between the states and federal government?
For the next week, a lot of attention will be paid to who will win or lose the election. Sadly, far less attention will be paid to the important foreign and domestic policy implications of those outcomes. But while the elections are typically conceived as finish lines, they are more akin to water stations along a marathon route. The potential disruption of long term voting patterns and reshaping of partisan coalitions instigated during this election and that could gradually evolve over the next several electoral cycles, might be the most enduring aspect of this election.
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