The REAL grass roots of American politics: A report from the first ever Idaho Republican Caucusby Chris Byrne
Since 1920, the 43rd state has had either a convention, or a presidential primary to select the the Republican party presidential candidate (the Democratic party allowed each county to decide whether to have a caucus or a primary, up ’til 2008, and the counties varied between caucuses and primaries. In 2008 they changed the rules and have caucused statewide since).
Idaho has historically had a late season non-binding primary, held in Mid may (and still does for everything other than president), by which time the presidential nominee is almost always decided.
For 2012, the Idaho Republican party was tired of being irrelevant to the election, and sought some way of moving their participation to earlier in the process. Unfortunately, moving a primary has some negative consequences. Because the early primary states like to protect their position as favored by the presidential candidates, each of the parties has rules that penalize states (by reducing the number of delegates they control) if they make their primaries earlier than they were in the previous election.
For 2012 however, the GOP changed their rules, so that if a state held a binding caucus, on or before April 6th, but not before March 6th (super Tuesday), and changed from a past the post winner take all system to some type of apportionment; they would not be penalized.
There was a very big, and very nasty fight within the party about this plan; with most of rural Idaho, particularly north and north central Idaho opposing it, and the major metropolitan areas Boise, Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, and Pocatello, supporting it.
A Sidebar: For those of you reading this not familiar with the politics or demographics of Idaho, and who primarily think of Idaho as a farm state… potatoes and all… a little background would probably be useful.
Idaho is a pretty BIG state geographically (14th largest at 83.6 thousand square miles), but with one of the smallest populations (11th smallest at 1.6 million), and thus the 7th least dense in population (19.1 per square mile, about 1/5th the national average).
Another important point: although Idaho is only the 14th largest state, because of its very odd shape (big and rectangular-ish at the bottom, long and narrow up top, kinda triangular in the middle) at 480 miles top to bottom, and 560 miles on the long diagonal; only Alaska, California, and Texas are longer north to south, and only those plus Montana and Nevada are longer (only by 60 miles for the latter two) on the long diagonal.
Combine that big state geography, and small state population, with our… unique… landscape, and things are a little weird here.
Let me describe to you what I mean by unique geography.
Idaho isn’t the big flat farm state that most people imagine in their mind, thinking of Idaho potatoes. Idaho is smack in the middle of the Rocky mountains, and is in fact the most mountainous of the lower 48 states by land area classified as “mountains” (Colorado is slightly larger and has a higher mean elevation, but is half mountains, half plains); as well as having the third most land area in National forest service land (20.5 million acres, only 300k acres behind California, and 1.5 million behind Alaska; and thus the highest percentage of land area); and at over 60% the third highest (behind Nevada and Utah) in percentage of land controlled by the federal government (which includes NFS and BLM lands).
There are six population centers in Idaho, and about 75% of the population lives within their catchment areas: Boise (620,000 metro population. 40% of the states population lives within 50 miles of Boise), Twin Falls (99,000), Pocatello (90,000), Idaho falls (130,000), Moscow/Lewiston (87,000), and Coeur D’Alene/Sandpoint (179,000, but only because that counts the entire population of the two counties. The actual “micropolitan” population is more like 100,000 between the cities and large towns within an hours drive); and they are mostly separated by pretty substantial stretches of mountains. Just to top things off, the northern half of the state (north of the Salmon river) is in the pacific time zone, while the southern part of the state is in the Mountain time zone.
The geographic separation is such, that the quickest way to get to Boise from Sandpoint, where we live, is to drive over 100 miles out of our way through Washington and Oregon. It’s only 320 miles in a straight line, but the shortest route by road is an 8 to 9 hour, 420 mile drive on mountain roads (many of which are impassible much of the time in winter), or a 500 mile 8 to 9 hour tri-state drive by interstate.
Those of us in north Idaho have basically no relation to Boise or Pocatello at all; except in that they dominate statewide politics because of their population. We’re far closer connected to eastern Washington (Spokane, Pullman), or to western Montana… or even to Seattle.
From my house, it’s a hell of a lot easier (and faster. It’s 350 miles and about 5-6 hours) to get to Seattle than it is to get to Boise. Hell, we’re only 220 miles from Calgary. Though it’s a 7 hour 350 mile trip by road; it’s still closer to us than Boise.
Check out the topo map below to see what I’m talking about:
You can see, there isn’t very much at all in between the Boise area, and the Lewiston area, except BIG mountains; and a few towns along U.S. 95, and around the lakes and big rivers.
U.S. 95 is one of the old original U.S. highways by the way; and one of the very few left that hasn’t been replaced by interstates. It runs through almost the entire state of Idaho north to South, from the Canadian border, down to southern Oregon at Ontario near Boise; into northern Nevada near Winnemucca and over to Fernley near Reno; from Reno down to Vegas, from Vegas down to Blythe California, then over into Arizona near quartzite; turning south again down into Yuma, and then into Mexico at San Luis Rio Colorado, on the Colorado river. I have driven the entire length of it (unfortunately not all at once, but in pieces), and from top to bottom, it is some of the prettiest, and most geographically varied, road you’ll ever drive.
Because of this geography, and the population differences, Idaho is effectively two VERY VERY different states; north and north central Idaho in the pacific time zone, and southern and eastern Idaho in the mountain time zone (with the dividing line at a little town in the middle of the bitterroot mountains called Riggins).
Both are very conservative overall, but the southern part of the state are very heavily Mormon, and very religious and socially conservative; while the northern part of the state is more catholic and protestant (but not really hardcore baptist, pentecostal, hardcore evangelical etc…), and much more libertarian.
The big problem, as far as north/north central Idaho goes, is that although it represents about 40% of the land area, out of a population of almost 1.6 million, the north only has about 320,000 or about 20%; and that 320,000 is very thinly spread across 10 pretty large counties, vs. the 1.25 million (or about 80%) across 34 generally smaller counties in the southeast and southwest.
Thus, the northern half of the state is generally marginalized as a political constituency, with Boise or Pocatello generally both setting the statewide agenda, and having things decided their way.
Of course, this situation probably sounds pretty familiar to Arizonans, Nevadans, Michiganders, Minnesotans, Floridians, and New Hampsherites (all have a very big north south split); Washingtonians, Oregonians, Coloradans, and Montanans (all have a very big east west split); and of course Texans and Californians (which both have a three or four way split depending on how you count it).
Predictably, Boise won; and Idaho became a caucus state, at least for presidential purposes. Idaho also, for the first time, became… at least somewhat… relevant to the selection of a presidential candidate. So much so that in the weeks before Super Tuesday, Idaho had visits from all the major candidates.
And believe me, there was plenty of interest and participation in this process; both by the people, and from the campaigns.
Our candidate visits included Ron Paul up here in Sandpoint, just this past Monday. On Sunday, the organizers of the event emailed me saying that I shouldn’t worry about parking or seating, there should be plenty. Unfortunately, the event was so packed, by the time I got there I wasn’t able to get in. They expected 400 or 500 people, and the hall at the county fairgrounds filled to capacity (at 1300).
Also the telephone banks were operating in force (I got two calls in the last two weeks from the Ron Paul folks, both actual human beings; and over a dozen from Romney and Santorums campaign, all robocalls).
And finally, last night, the Idaho GOP held their first ever presidential caucus.
It was a resounding success… so much so that it almost ended up a total disaster.
Based on Democratic caucus participation (in 2008, their most attended caucus ever, only 20,000 Idaho Democrats caucused), and participation in caucuses in other states, the state central committee planned for between and 3% and 6% of total registered voters to attend the caucuses; expecting as little as 1% in some counties, and as much as 10% at most in others.
This year there were about 750,000 total registered voters in Idaho (a bit less than 50% of the population); and while something between 55% and 60% of registered voters vote Republican in general elections, Idaho has been an open primary state up till now, and in any given year only around 10% of voters are actually registered Republicans (this year, based on previous participation, Idaho has “official” party affiliation recorded for “Democratic”, “Republican”, “Libertarian”, “Constitution” and “Unaffiliated”. The large majority of Idaho voters are registered “unaffiliated”).
I spoke to several Idaho state Republican party staff members, and given the low Democratic caucus turnout, and that in most caucus states the turnouts are 3% or less (even Iowa on a good year gets 6%) they expected something like 10,000 people state wide, and 20,000 at the very outside, would attend this years Republican caucuses (remember, the most Democrats to ever caucus in Idaho was 20,000 in 2008).
Not only that, but just about all the “smart folks” were predicting a low turnout due to “lack of energy” and “lack of enthusiasm” etc… etc…
They were wrong.
Nearly 10,000 people showed up to caucus in just one county alone (in Ada county, population 300,000, which contains Boise, more than 10,000 people went through the doors at caucus locations, and 9,050 cast first round ballots).
All told, about 45,000 people statewide cast a final round ballot, in whatever round their county went to. If the numbers in other counties are at all similar to those in Bonner county (the only county I have direct numbers for), at least 60,000 and maybe as many as 80,000 people actually showed up at caucus sites.
And of course, that doesn’t include the people who showed up, saw how busy it was, and left; or the people who, never having attended a caucus before, were confused about the process and gave up earlier.
In Sandpoint, there were so many people wanting to caucus, that many people simply left; either angry or frustrated at the long lines and waiting in the cold (it was 36 degrees and full dark before we got through the doors).
I spoke with several staff members at Sandpoint High school (our local caucus site), and Priest River Jr. High school (the caucus site in Priest River), and with several county Republican committee members and volunteers; who told me that hundreds of people didn’t understand the process, and had showed up at the caucus sites during the day, wondering about how to vote. After finding out they had to come back at 6pm and stay for several hours, most of these people left (often angrily) saying they wouldn’t come back.
I arrived at our caucus site, our local high school, at about 5:30pm; 30 minutes before the designated “door opening” time and 90 minutes before the caucus was supposed to begin at 7pm. When I arrived, the 438 space main parking lot was already full, with the remaining 200 spaces in the side lots filling up rapidly.
By 6pm, the parking lot was completely full, and the line to get into the caucus site was wrapped halfway around the school. I, having arrived at 5:30, didn’t get in to the registration table until 6:45pm (in the end, they continued processing people through until around 8pm).
Bonner county, where my family and I live, has a population of just about 40,000, with 22,794 registered voters as of 9am yesterday morning; however, over 80% of all the registered voters in our county are unaffiliated (though the county generally votes over 60% republican). Prior to yesterdays caucuses (Idaho allows same day registration and affiliation), the total number of registered Republicans in Bonner county was just 1,662.
The county party committee, following the central committees guidance, were told to prepare for something like 600 to 1200 people to show up for the whole county; and had intended to use the 300 seat high school auditorium for the caucus site in Sandpoint (half the registered voters in the county live within 10 miles of Sandpoint).
That auditorium was filled in the first ten or fifteen minutes.
By the time my wife and I got through sign-in and ID check at 6:45, we had already filled up the cafeteria; and were well over 500 strong. In fact, by the time we hit 700, we hit the fire code maximum for the auditorium, AND the cafeteria and the overflow room.
Finally, at around 7pm (when the first round of voting was supposed to start), they pulled the bleachers out in the school gym. By the time they finished letting people in, there were over 1100 of us in the building (including a lot of kids, there with their parents; which my wife and I found heartening).
Because of the huge turnout, there obviously weren’t enough staff volunteers. The staff ended up asking for some additional help from the attendees, and the high school kids who wanted additional community service (which was gladly given); and everything was delayed by over an hour.
There were four caucus sites for the county. By the time we started the first round of balloting it was after 8pm; and 856 of us cast a first round ballot in that building alone. All said and done, there were 1411 first round ballots cast for Bonner county; when less than 12 hours before, there were only 1662 total registered Republicans.
Before I continue I should note the rules and process for the Idaho Republican caucuses, as conducted last night.
There were five candidates that qualified to be listed for the caucuses: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Buddy Roemer.
Voting would proceed county wide, in rounds, eliminating lower performing candidates in each round, until a “50% plus one vote” winner could be declared for each county (NOT for each caucus site). In the first round, any candidate that failed to achieve 15% support would be eliminated. In any subsequent round the lowest performing candidate would be eliminated.
Also, I should be clear that the county Republican party commissioners and volunteers conducted themselves in as professional and courteous a manner as they could given the difficulties; and they conducted the primary in an entirely open and transparent way. I would like to particularly thank our county commissioner (and party chair) Cornel Rasor and county party treasurer Alan Banks, for working so hard to make things work given the difficult circumstances; and for being so open and encouraging to people who wanted to witness, film, photograph, record, and report on the process (at one point Cornel said “Please, everyone, tweet this, post it on facebook, blog about it… we want everyone to see that we’re conducting the most open caucus in the country).
23 of Idahos 44 counties had a 50%+1 vote winner in the first round (including most of the top ten population counties). Every county that finished in the first round went for Romney except one; Latah county, which voted for Ron Paul. Most of those counties went for Romney by 60% or more, with two (Madison county and Bear Lake county), hitting 90% for Romney (notably both counties are almost entirely Mormon, as were most of the counties that went for Mitt more than 60%).
One should note, Latah county, with a population of just 35,000, and less than 2000 registered Republicans prior to their caucus, had 982 votes cast yesterday. 52% voted for Ron Paul, and only 20% voted for Romney.
… and that rather nicely illustrates the political divide between north and north central Idaho, and southern Idaho.
In the first round, Bonner county cast 1411 votes, including 558 for Ron Paul (39.55%), 291 for Romney (20.77%), 290 for Rick Santorum (20.43%) 173 for Newt Gingrich (12.26%) and 4 for Buddy Roemer. This meant Newt and Roemer would be eliminated after the first round.
Six of the remaining 21 counties went through two rounds of voting, including Boundary county just to our north (they are the county bordering Canada) who went for Ron Paul at 54% (Romney at 18%, Santorum at 28%… they really don’t like the government very much in Boundary county). The other five counties that finished in two rounds also went for Mitt Romney.
In the second round, even though we didn’t cast our ballots ’til around 9:30pm, our polling place only lost 28 voters, and Bonner county as a whole only lost 138 voters, dropping from 1411 to 1293; 564 for Ron Paul, 277 for Mitt Romney, and surprisingly, 452 for Rick Santorum, causing Romney to be eliminated.
Unfortunately, a lot of folks were pretty sure the caucus would only go two rounds; and left immediately after casting their ballots, not waiting around for the vote count.
The one real black mark on last night caucus, at least in Bonner county; wasn’t from the party, it was from the left… Unfortunately, many of us recognized a number people we know to be hardcore Democrats, far left liberals, or otherwise very anti-republican (and definitely NOT libertarians or Ron Paul supporters), in the caucus crowd last night. I have spoken to people who were at the other three caucus sites in the county, as well as some people in other counties; who have told me the same thing.
There are not a lot of Santorum supporters up here; and there ARE a large number of Romney supporters (it’s still at least 20% mormon up here, plus the pragmatists who think that Romney is the only one who can actually beat Obama).
A number of the folks who were there, are pretty sure that those people we recognized as leftists made up a lot of the Gingrich and Santorum voters in the Bonner county caucus last night.
When Gingrich was eliminated in the first round, as everyone knew he would be; we all expected the Gingrich vote to MOSTLY split between Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. When basically ALL the Gingrich vote went for Santorum, eliminating Romney and forcing us into a third round… Let’s just say that everyone was more than a little surprised…
… Actually extreme shock and more than a little disgust might be a better description.
Like 15 other counties, the caucuses in Bonner county last night went to three rounds, but the difference between the second and third round was much greater than between the first and second. Bonner county only lost 138 voters between the first and second round. Between the second and third round we lost 341. Notably, that included a lot of the folks who we recognized as leftists; and almost none of the Ron Paul supporters.
When we finally cast our third round ballots, well around 10pm (the count came back around 10:30), 555 Bonner county republicans cast their ballot for Ron Paul, and 487 cast their ballot for Rick Santorum; Paul winning the county at 53.28%.
I don’t think there is any question, given the numbers I’ve seen and talking with people in the other polling places and other counties; that some democrat/leftists manipulation was going on in Idaho last night, trying to undermine Romney and Paul by artificially boosting support for Santorum.
Overall, Ron Paul won six counties and 18% of the vote, Rick Santorum won seven counties and 18% of the vote, and Mitt Romney won thirty-one counties and 62 percent of the vote.
Officially, Santorum received 29 more votes state wide than Ron Paul, so he came in second; though as I said, I believe that result was the result of deliberate manipulation. Romney should have received even more votes than he did, as should Ron Paul, and Paul should have been in a very clear second place.
Although Idaho’s Republican caucus for 2012 was technically an apportioned caucus, not a winner take all; the rules that the Idaho Republican committee decided on, were that the counties would be winner take all, and if more than one candidate won more than 50% of the counties delegates, than that candidate would have all the states delegates committed to them.
Since Mitt won 31 counties, he got all 32 of Idahos delegates. Given the results overall for Super Tuesday; although Romney is not a mathematical certainty for the nomination, he is almost certainly the nominee.
Of course… he’s BEEN “almost certainly the nominee” since shortly after November 4th 2008; when the RNC decided that was who they were going to line up behind for fundraising and groundwork for the next four years to beat Obama….
but that’s another rant for another day.
From a personal standpoint, other than the manipulation issue, and the party VASTLY underestimating the level of interest, passion, and participation of the people of Idaho… I found my first caucus experience to be very interesting and personally far more rewarding and engaging than a primary. There were certainly a lot of folks who were irritated by the process, or who feel that a caucus is simply improper or an inferior way to vote for a candidate; but I can certainly see the advantages of it.
As to which I think is better?
I believe that the primary/convention system used in this country is essentially a sideshow for the benefit of the media, the fundraising arms of the party, and the fundraising efforts of the candidates themselves. It is a detriment to political discourse and serves to perpetuate an inherently corrupt process of candidate selection by party insiders and political money brokers.
…but, as I said above, that’s a rant for another day.