Much of the politics in Idaho’s Panhandle is driven by a collection of groups of activist extremists, successful enough to dominate most Republican primary contests and many general elections.
Despite their splinters into competing factions (Tea Party Patriots, Reagan Republicans, species of Pachyderms and others) they are dominant - you can look at the roster of state legislators from the area for initial evidence - but are they a majority of the public at large? Does this segment of the Republican Party (again, I’m not talking about the party generally, just this segment of it) really speak for a majority of the people of the area?
I posed that question to a number of Panhandle people while in the area last week, and the answer uniformly and unequivocally came back: No. (An admission: None of those people were from the extremist groups, but they did represent a variety of viewpoints and experiences.)
Second question: How, then, do they win so many elections?
In answer to that, I heard mainly: They vote. And they got themselves organized. They did it the old-fashioned and proper way. And their opposition - outside of some recent strong organizing work on several elections inside the city of Coeur d’Alene - didn’t do those things nearly as well.
This isn’t the whole story. Immigrants from California and other places have tended very conservative, and many have been receptive to relatively extreme messages. The demographics have changed somewhat.
Still, there’s external evidence the extreme groups are not a majority. Polling done over the years broken down by region has consistently shown more moderately conservative positions on a range of issues, from the social to the fiscal, have more support than more narrow, extremist views.
You start to wonder what would happen, and what Idaho elections would look like, if everyone voted.
Idaho has somewhere around 1.2 million people eligible to vote; that number may be edging toward 1.3 million.
In November 2014, about two-thirds of those eligibles were registered to vote, and barely a third of the eligibles actually voted; about 800,000 did not. The elected officials Idaho has got there on the basis of winning a majority of that third. What does the other two-thirds think of the result?
More people turn out in presidential years, of course, but the point here still holds. In November 2012, about three-fourths of the eligibles were registered, and a little over half voted. The views, whatever they were, of about 600,000 Idahoans were not reflected.
Who are these people who are not voting?
One national study from about five years ago said that “approximately 51 million eligible Americans are still not registered to vote. This represents almost one in four eligible persons, disproportionately low-income voters, people of color, and younger Americans.”
In Idaho’s case then, considering that study and the polling showing overall attitudes on ideas and issues, there’s some reason to believe that the large mass of non-voters is more moderate generally than the voters have been, at least in recent years.
An exclamation point: Don’t read too much into this. I don’t at all mean to suggest that Idaho would suddenly go Democratic or liberal if all the eligibles turned up in the polls; I don’t think that would happen. But there’s some reason to think the state’s politics would moderate a bit if they did.