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Today’s Idaho poll offered up by Mason Dixon – broadly regarded as one of the better polling firms in the country – courtesy the Boise Idaho Statesman and KIVI-TV in Nampa, shows a general election campaign riding on the razor edge.

The core numbers are these:

Office Republican % Democratic % Undecided %
1st US House Bill Sali 39% Larry Grant 37% 21%
Governor Butch Otter 44% Jerry Brady 43% 12%
Lt Gov Jim Risch 45% Larry La Rocco 36% 18%
Supt Pub Instr Tom Luna 40% Jana Jones 37% 23%

That these numbers are as close as they are in Idaho is noteworthy on its face, and an indicator that recent polls showing a closing of the races are not outliers.

Looks like a serious horse race. But more specifically, what do we make of it?

Start with the caveats. Polling in Idaho is always iffy, done by the best of firms and in the best of ways. We’ve long been convinced significant numbers of Idahoans lie to pollsters (some of the matchups historically between polling and voting results suggest as much). There’s a traditional gap, historically of around 5%, shorting Republican support in pre-election polls – in one of the Statesman stories on this poll, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady said he agrees with that view (shared as well by former Republican Governor Phil Batt). And we should note that while the statewide margin of error is a fairly normal 4%, the MOE in the 1st district – Sali-Grant – is a high 6%, a serious limitation on the confidence we should attach to the figures there.

All that said, a few other thoughts jump out.

The poll clearly indicates a reason for throwing big money in the 1st district race, and for a reason suggested also by the Greg Smith poll from August: There are a lot of undecided voters in the first district, meaning that the race is evidently not settled and up for grabs. The indication is that much of this springs from concerns about Sali, who – the poll says – has a 35% unfavorability, higher than any of the other candidates for major office. Bit advertising money can help repair that, but that repair probably wouldn’t be helped if the coming air blitz, most of it heavily financed outside Sali’s campaign, is – as appears likely – aimed at destroying Grant instead of boosting Sali.

There’s some suggestion too that Republican gubernatorial candidate Butch Otter has been hurt by back choices combined with bad timing.

Earlier this year, a political analogy suggested itself easily in the race for governor: In 1998, U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne swooped in and, without breaking a sweat, made some easy rounds in what amounted more to coronation than to serious campaigning, and he won easily. Otter, also a familiar and generally popular political figure in Idaho, also conservative and Republican, also raising and spending far more than his Democratic opponent, also a beneficiary of the state’s strong Republican infrastructure, also a skilled campaigner, looked to do the same thing. But he’s run into problems. His headlines this year have been awful, from alliance with a federal lands selloff plan (which he later repudiated and apologized for) to refusal to appear at a public television debate (a decision he may now regret). For all that Otter now (in the Statesman) refers to campaigning as if he were behind, you’ll not find many political people in Idaho who think he has: Most think that by historical standards of running for governor, he’s campaigned hardly at all. And Congress, from whence Otter is coming, is a whole lot less popular now than it was in 1998. And, while Kempthorne faced a Democratic opponent whose campaign sputtered and finally gave up completely in the last of the campaign, Otter faces one re-energized by the polling news and national assistance, who will at a minimum be highly visible and active through election day.

And maybe most of all, Kempthorne didn’t have to campaign in a national atmosphere so toxic to Republicans that it seems to have permeated even Idaho.

All those factors just noted may have contributed to something else: Otter’s relatively high – 27% – unfavorability rating, second only to Sali’s (and well higher than Democrat Brady’s 14%). One of Otter’s best assets is his personal campaigning self; the man is as naturally skilled a campaigner as Idaho has seen. The catch is that he hasn’t been doing a lot of it, and he may be starting to pay for it.

Is this race close? It could be.

We’re now in the final stages, and much of what remains (other than late air attacks) will be ground war: Getting one’s voters to the polls. Historically, Republicans have been heavily outperforming Democrats in this area.

But there’s a joker in this pack: The hidden core of Democratic voters. About a decade ago, after crushing and accelerating losses in the state in 1992, 1994 and 1996, a large number of Democratic-leaning voters – in our count, somewhere around 50,000 of them – gave up and quit voting. Democratic numbers after 1996, into 2004, fell consistently by about that amount in part for that reason. What if the changed atmosphere, polls and prospects bring many of them back to the polls this year? And depress Republican turnout?

The last week of this may be notably critical in Idaho.

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