Much was made of the consequences the closed primary would have in GOP primary turnouts. Overall GOP turnout was expected to drop below 2008 due to the closed primary, no presidential primary and a lack of competitive federal election primaries. The expectation was wrong.
On Tuesday GOP primary turnout in the 1st CD was 71,774. In the 2nd CD it was 72,726. The prior record for both races was set in 2010. While both races failed to bust 2010 records they came close. In the 2nd CD turnout was only 5,000 votes down from 2010 and in the 1st CD it was 10,000. Let’s all keep in mind that in 2010 there was a competitive GOP gubernatorial primary and Tea Party anger and fervor alive and well in Idaho (not to say it still is not).
But the real story of the night was the Democrat abysmal turnout and the woes it points to. While GOP primary turnout increased by almost 15% in both CD’s from 2008 levels Democratic turnout dropped by almost a third between 2008 and 2012. In the 1st CD Democratic turnout was 10,076 and this was with a competitive primary. In 2010 when Rep. Walt Minnick (D) was uncontested Democratic turnout was higher with 11,407 participants. In the 2nd CD Democratic turnout was slightly more robust with 12,427 voters casting their ballots. Still, this turnout comes as Democrats have a strong liberal challenger in Nicole Lefavour to GOP Congressman Mike Simpson.
Last year two surveys on the partisan landscape of Idaho painted a grim picture for the Democrats. A GOP aligned poster conducted a survey finding 40% of the Idaho electorate identified as Republican. A mere 19% identified as Democratic and 41% as Independent. The Idaho Public Policy Survey (conducted by BSU) found that 38% of the populace identified as Republican, 23% as Democratic and 39% as Independent. This is not encouraging news. To be fair to other parties however I must mention the surveys did not offer respondents other party options to identify as.
Unofficial election returns from county and legislative primaries also showed Democratic primary turnout seriously lagging. This was helped by the fact that in many solidly GOP districts Democrats failed to even field a candidate.
Democrats maintained up to the primary that keeping their primaries open would allow them to see a boon in participation. The GOP closing its primary was cited as an example of extreme partisanship and ideology. However, as many expected, a solid majority of voters went to the polls as Republicans just to get their preferred candidate on the ballot for a likely general election win.
Going forward Democrats face a daunting landscape in terms of becoming more than a minority party in Idaho. The growth of urban Boise once offered Democrats reasons for hope. But metro Boise has largely stopped growing and instead the heavily GOP suburbs and exurbs of the city are expanding. The growth of the Hispanic population offers Democrats a chance to win seats in soon to be minority-majority seats. But the Hispanic growth is scattered except largely in Nampa and Caldwell. But the growth of the largest white constituency in the state, Mormons, threatens to cancel out Hispanic growth and it will likely be decades before the Hispanic population even offers Democrats enough votes to get them a majority in the legislature.
The increase in ideological polarization in the Idaho GOP does bode well for Democrats in reaching moderate voters in rural and suburban counties. But the make-up of the Idaho electorate has shifted right along with the state and national GOP. Independent conservative voters in Idaho rose as a percentage of the voting public between 2009-2011 in the IPPS. And in the short-term having an unpopular president at the top of the ticket is unlikely to help.
All these negatives outweighing the positives become a vicious cycle for Democrats. Much as in neighboring Utah, Democrats in Idaho struggle to recruit quality candidates, let alone any. Democrats in the state legislature get burned out quickly and retire fast. This empties the bench of possible strong statewide or federal candidates. Voters notice this and even if they do not like the GOP will either stay home or participate in GOP primaries to get a moderate candidate on the general election ballot.
The Idaho Democrat’s abhorrant primary turnout is not surprising. But it perfectly illustrates the party’s woes in this red state.