Now that the presidential contest has begun to fill out, some of the probabilities for Idaho’s role are filling in, though one big element remains a vast mystery.
Least mysterious is the end result next year: No matter who the Republican or Democratic party nominate for president, Idaho’s four electoral votes are a near slam dunk to go to the Republican. That much is about as certain as anything can be in Idaho politics.
The next highest probability is that Idaho’s Democrats will wind up supporting Hillary Clinton for their party’s nomination. That shouldn’t necessarily seem like a given if you recall what happened in 2008: A weak Clinton organization in Idaho was swamped by a thoroughly-organized Barack Obama crew which drew huge numbers to party caucuses and around 14,000 people to hear their candidate campaign at Boise.
One of Clinton’s big mistakes in 2008 was bypassing the smaller, and mostly Republican, states along the way to the nomination. These states contribute delegates too, and states like Idaho allowed Obama to rack up delegate totals ahead of Clinton’s, allowing him to win the nomination nationally not by knockout but by steady accretion. Several news reports indicate the Clinton campaign has learned from that experience and will not be ignoring the Idahos around the country. Clinton forces already are on the ground, and you can expect her to have most of the Idaho organization – all she needs to secure Idaho’s delegates, at least – locked down and in place by Labor Day. By the time any other contenders (Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley, for example) arrive, they may find not many resources left for them.
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So much for the readily foreseeable. Now the harder question: Who will Idaho Republicans like for president?
In most past years, the answer was easy. Idaho Republicans absolutely loved Ronald Reagan, and in the last two contests their clear preference was for Mitt Romney. A laundry list of reasons for those preferences was obvious then and now. While the Republican nominee, whoever it is, will almost certainly get the state’s support in November, it’s less clear who they will prefer within this large and still-growing Republican field.
Last week, the Idaho Politics Weekly poll asked this question (it was unclear whether Republicans only were polled), and no one topped 13%. That percentage was held by the two prospects with family ties to previous Republican presidential candidates who did well in Idaho: Jeb Bush, brother of George W. and son of George H.W., and Rand Paul, son of Ron, who picked up a lot of northern Idaho support in 2012 and 2008. Scott Walker, nationally the hot Republican flavor this month, was third with eight percent, and others including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Cristie and Ben Carson were well below that. Note too that the Bush and Paul early advantage doubtless comes in part because of the historical connections; they have yet to solidify such limited Idaho backing as they have on their own.
Where will Idaho’s preferences go? My guess at the moment would center on Rand Paul, partly because of the affection in many quarters for his father, and partly because there’s a certain type of rebellious streak in him that evokes the sense of an anti-establishment candidate like those who often appeal to Idaho Republican voters. But that sort of aura is fragile, and it could fade in the months to come. A second possibility, if he catches on enough nationally, might be Mike Huckabee. Marco Rubio will get to make a pitch when he speaks to a state Republican event this summer.
But really, Idaho’s Republican voters may be very much up for grabs.
Republican candidates did not ignore Idaho voters, in the fight for the nomination, in 2012; most of the major contenders campaigned in the Gem State. Don’t be surprised if that happens again.