Idaho’s turn in the presidential primary firing range comes earlier this cycle than usual, and for Democrats at a notable moment.
While much of the national attention for the March 10 voting may go elsewhere - Michigan will be watched closely, as will Missouri - there’s some specific reason to pay attention to what Idaho does in this primary. And not just because this is the first time in quite a few years when the delegates who help choose the Democratic nominee won’t be chosen by caucus.
That’s a change, but there’s also this similarity: The Democratic candidate best organized in the state, last time and (apparently) now, is the same: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. And then as now he faces one main opponent based in the party’s establishment, then Hillary Clinton and now Joe Biden.
Four years ago, Idaho’s Democratic establishment - yes, there is one, albeit not massively powerful - was firmly aligned with Clinton. As of this weekend, if you could agree on who is in that establishment and then poll them, you probably would find overwhelming support for Biden.
Four years ago, Sanders had the stronger organizational support but Clinton did have surrogates and leaders in the state party backing her, often a helpful asset in caucus situations. But when the caucuses were held around the state, the result was: 43 counties voted for Sanders, and one (Lewis) for Clinton. Sanders collected a remarkable 78 percent of the vote.
I thought at the time, and still do, that the public nature of these votes - in caucuses, you have to stand up in public and declare who you support - made this all the more stunning. From four years ago: “That may not be so big a deal in Latah County or Blaine County, or in Boise. But think about those Democrats in Madison County – which has been called, with justification, the most Republican county in the nation – and in Cassia, Franklin, Lemhi, or Payette. The culture in these counties, in nearly all of Idaho, is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. Local Democrats most typically keep their heads down. But in significant numbers, in support of a candidate labeled as far-left and ‘socialist,’ they were visible last week.”
Moving now to 2020, when Sanders supporters have been marching in the street (in Boise anyway), and there’s been little visible activity on Biden’s behalf.
Nationally there’s also, in the immediate wake of Super Tuesday, a massive Biden wave. That campaign had little money or organization almost anywhere - it sank most of what little it had left into South Carolina - and yet swamped Sanders and everyone else overall on election day. Most analysts agreed (and I’d concur) that this had less to do with the Biden campaign as such, or the lack of it, as a confluence of events: Other candidates leaving the field, the collapse of the Michael Bloomberg ad campaign, key endorsements at the right moment and a desire on the part of many Democrats to put an end to the primary contest and settle on an opponent to Donald Trump. After South Carolina, an almost telepathetic trigger seems to have been pulled in many places around the country to the effect that Biden was the guy who was going to do it.
Next Tuesday’s batch of primaries (with caucuses in North Dakota) seem, in this context, more like the kind of confirmation question you sometimes see on a website before completing an action: Are you sure you want to do this? Do you have any second thoughts?
It’s only partly like that, because the choice now effectively is binary, between Biden and Sanders.
But the choice is starker than that, partly for its suddenness, than it was in 2016. And the choice will be made on secret ballots, not in open caucuses.
Idaho has its own choice to make. And in the context of the choice it made four years ago, there may be some comment - and some significance to take away - about it.