State Politics

Idaho GOP primary: A Trump win? Wrong. Low turnout? Wrong.

Sen. Ted Cruz greets supporters after speaking at a rally at Boise State University on Saturday night.
Sen. Ted Cruz greets supporters after speaking at a rally at Boise State University on Saturday night.

The pre-election harbingers for Idaho’s earliest-ever presidential primary predicted a Donald Trump victory with record low turnout. They were way off on both counts.

Trump lost, by a healthy margin. And not only was turnout for a primary election high, it was the highest ever.

“There has never been a primary vote with that many people participating in the history of the state of Idaho,” said GOP state Chairman Stephen Yates. “Even with all registered voters included, it would still be a record-setting turnout.”

Here’s more on that, plus four other takeaways:

1. Huge turnout. Low absentee and early voting numbers prompted election and party officials to anticipate a low turnout. In fact, more than 220,000 ballots were cast in the primary. That’s 30 percent of registered voters, and an unheard of 74 percent of registered Republicans.

Turnout was 24 percent of registered voters in Ada County and 30 percent in Canyon. Blaine County (Ketchum, Hailey) had the lowest turnout, at 14 percent; Clark County in Eastern Idaho (Dubois) had the highest, at 51 percent.

Officials don’t yet know how many same-day registrations occurred, or how many of those people switched to vote Republican. But Phil McGrane, chief deputy Ada County clerk, said anecdotal reporting suggested those same-day numbers were high.

What else stirred turnout? A competitive race with four candidates, a chance for Idaho’s earlier vote to affect the outcome, and voter anger. Three of four voters statewide voted against the perceived party establishment and for Cruz or Trump. Cruz, with 45 percent, took 20 of Idaho’s 32 delegates. Trump, with 28 percent, took 12.

“I think there’s just an enormous amount of energy that is mostly frustration out there among a large number of Republican voters that want significant change,” Yates said.

2. Trump won where the economy is bad. Trump won the three counties with the highest unemployment — Shoshone, Clearwater and Adams — and nine of the top 15. He won a total of 12 counties out of 44, but only one of the 20 counties where employment is highest.

3. The Mormons demolished Trump. Some say it’s not so much the influence of Mitt Romney that did him in, but rather Trump’s 2014 characterization of the LDS church as an “alien” faith. The slur circulated among the faithful, online and elsewhere.

Whatever the cause, Cruz’s average margin of victory over Trump in the counties with the highest LDS population was 32 points. In Madison County (Rexburg), it was 50 points. Trump ran third there with less than 8 percent of the vote and was held to less than 20 percent in Bannock, Fremont, Oneida, Franklin, Bingham, Bonneville and Jefferson counties in Eastern Idaho.

4. The ground game went underground. Elected officials split their endorsements. There was precious little of a traditional ground game — some robocalls but no phone banks, for instance. But Republican party officials who supported Cruz did networking under the radar.

“The Cruz campaign was the only one that used the party infrastructure to its advantage,” Yates said. “The Rubio campaign relied almost entirely on advertising, and the Trump campaign seemed to rely almost entirely on national media coverage. But the Cruz campaign actually had a declared list of endorsements that were lawmakers, but also county party officials.”

5. Polls were wrong, and the unconventional worked. Though limited polling in the state showed Trump with a healthy lead since September, those results didn’t match what party officials were hearing. Nate Silver of the polling and data-analysis website FiveThirtyEight didn’t believe it either.

Traditional Idaho campaign strategy dictates candidates win Idaho by going east to, say, Idaho Falls, to shore up the vote there. Rubio made a couple of stops there. Cruz, initially, planned one visit — to Coeur d’Alene. But the reception there was strong enough the campaign called a same-day audible and sent Cruz to Boise. That was it for visits, although Cruz’s father, Rafael, was in Idaho Falls on his behalf. The “North Idaho first” strategy worked.

One thought for the road: Cruz took time to talk to reporters in Boise, which got him just slightly away from his stump speech, got him more press and fleshed out his portrait with a bit of Idaho-oriented Q&A. Rubio parachuted in and never diverted from script, which perhaps did little to enliven and humanize him.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD

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