May 02 2006

Idaho 1st: One take

Published by at 7:13 pm under Idaho

Headed toward the finish line a three weeks hence, the six-way Republican race for the the House in Idaho’s 1st district appears to continue fluid, its outcome not yet nailed down. The contours for the end game do at least start to take a more definite shape.

Sheila Sorensen billboardThe bottom line seems to be a probable win by either state Representative Bill Sali or former state Senator Sheila Sorensen 9with a small edge to the former). That’s not a rule-out of other possibilities, just an expression of what seems now to be the likelihood.

That’s based in part on the appearance of activity, the way the candidates have been responding to each other and what looks like the shifts in base that each candidate can call their own.

It isn’t much based on the one bit of recently-released polling information – for reasons we’re about to mention – though it does give some useful cause for reflection.

Let’s get to the poll and then back to the questions about base shifting.

There’s been little released by way of polling in this race – just one media poll from months ago, and nothing by the candidates until now. But the Sorensen campaign is releasing some of its polling results, and in the absence of other results is certainly worth a look.

First, the usual caveats and then some: This isn’t an independent poll (it was even conducted specifically by the campaign), and therefore (like any such) has to be treated with some natural skepticism. It is also reliant on automated technology, an approach which has been used by some well-respected national polling firms but which remains highly controversial. Still, it represents one of an ongoing series of polls by the campaign, which apparently have had reasonably consistant results. And there is this: It gets a baseline down, so that among other things when we see the voting results just three weeks out, we’ll have something to compare to.

The poll (conducted, we gather, within the last week) gives Sorensen 33.2%, enough for a distant first place. It shows Robert Vasquez and Skip Brandt tied for second at 15.4% each, Keith Johnson fourth at 14%, Sali fifth at 11.8% and Norm Semanko last at 10.2%. There is a 5.2% margin of error, which logically puts all of the candidates except Sorensen in spitting distance of each other. That’s a fairly high margin. Still, what we’ve seen of the polling questions and methodology sound reasonable at least, ifnot impervious to question.

It also shows Sorensen with much higher name familiarity than the others, a new development, the campaign suggests, and maybe related to the fotrest of Sorensen billboards cropping up around the district. (Should be noted here too: Almost certainly other candidates have been polling as well, but none of those results have so far leaked. There may be a message in that, too. That said, if any other campaigns bring their poll numbers to our attention, we’ll post them as well.)

Where the poll results seem to mesh with our non-poll sense of this is in the Sorensen base, which seems to be substantial (albeit far short of a majority, though a significant plurality) and probably growing, though how much is debatable.

The real question marks have to do with Sali, Johnson and Vasquez.

Our sense has been that, owing to strong grassroots conservative and Christian organization (some of it through churches), the electorate turning out for Sali is apt to be substantial, especially in a low-turnout primary. Polling at 11.8%, even if perfectly accurate, may mean little in his case: His people, if strongly motivated (as similar groups have been in several recent elections) may turn out disproportionately.

But there are question marks. Recent studies have shown a dispirit among some very conservative Republican voters in recent weeks; could that affect the Sali crowd? Have they been strongly influenced by the recent protests and events on behalf of immigrants? If so, might that cause some to peel off to Vasquez, who appears to have surged in the last couple of months? Might that be enough, if the timing is exactly right, to pull Vasquez over the top?

Johnson figures into this too, in a different way. He has not clearly defined himself so far, at times sounding closer to Sali and at times (in style at least) a little closer to Sorensen. Sali and Vasquez both have rough edges in their personal campaigning style, and reports getting back to us indicate they’ve turned some people off in personal appearances. If so, where do they go? One line of thought suggests Sorensen, but our speculation is Johnson – a smooth, easy-going presence who has LDS church background. In social conservatism, it gives him a sort of pre-qualification – though with just some social conservatives, by no means with all.

Semanko and Brandt seem less a part of the mix. Semanko may have the best party-based organization of any of the candidates, and he has worked hard, said and done the rights things and made no substantial mistakes, and yet he seems simply not to be catching fire. And there’s little evidence of strong support for Brandt ourside his home base in north-central Idaho.

The picture we seem to get is of a battle seemingly centered on Sali and Sorensen, with the campaigns of Vasquez and Johnson moving in and around the arena, picking up pieces, maybe significant pieces. The race is not done, but it seems to be taking shape.

Final shape is really up for grabs in the next three weeks.

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