All the attention two weeks before the November 2nd gubernatorial election in Idaho has been focused on the two major party candidates, incumbent Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter and independent-turned-Democrat Keith Allred.
Not surprisingly, considering the voting habits of Idahoans for the last 16 years, Otter has consistently been ahead in the public polls. But, there is at least one wild card in this political deck this year – three other candidates are on the ballot.
The recent Mason-Dixon poll in the governor’s race, conducted over a month ago, had Otter ahead 45% to Allred’s 29% with 20% undecided. The three minor party candidates were taking a total of 6%. The Rasmussen Poll has consistently had Otter over 50% and Rasmussen’s latest numbers (early September) show the minor candidates getting 7% with a much smaller number of undecideds – 5%.
Historically, an independent or third party candidate for Idaho governor (and there have be a lot of them) has taken about 3% of the total vote. In 1986, an independent candidate named James A. Miller pulled just over 1% of the total vote cast for governor. Miller’s total vote was 4,203. Democrat Cecil D. Andrus won that close 1986 election defeating then-Lt. Governor David Leroy by only 3,635 votes out of more than 387,000 total votes cast. It’s hard to say whether Miller really impacted the outcome or explain why 4,200 Idahoans voted for a guy who never really campaigned, but merely put his name on the ballot. Still, had the lion’s share of Miller’s vote total gone to Leroy, history might have been very different.
Idaho gubernatorial elections in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 were not nearly as close as that 1986 race, but each of these later races featured a minor candidate who, in all but one election, got at least 3% of the total.
I think the argument can be made that in the 1994, 2002 and 2006 races, the independent candidates where, generally speaking, positioned to the right of the Republican standard bearer. Anti-tax gadfly Ron Rankin, for example, who as a Republican had been a Kootenai County Commissioner, garnered close to 16,000 votes, or close to 4% of the total, in 1994. While it’s all conjecture, one assumes that most of Rankin’s votes came from among his anti-tax followers around the state and at the expense of the successful GOP candidate Phil Batt who won with just over 51% of the vote.
So, what about 2010?
Of the three minor candidates on the Idaho ballot, only former GOP legislator Jana Kemp has put on much of a campaign. She handled herself well in a recent three-way debate and, while hampered by a lack of money, Kemp has managed to get mentioned in much of the press coverage of the campaign. Under normal circumstances, and given Idaho’s election history, Kemp’s independent effort should almost automatically be good for 3% of the votes. Just by showing up and having her name on the ballot, she should takes that number of votes from the established party contenders. But what of the other two candidates?
Libertarian Ted Dunlap is on the ballot again this year and he pulled 1.6% in a four-way race in 2006, as did Pro-Life candidate Marvin Richardson who has now officially changed his name to Pro-Life. Neither candidate has really mounted a campaign this time around, but the same level of effort four years ago still ensured that together they pulled the nearly automatic 3%.
Do the three minor candidates split the magic three percent this year? Or, do the weird Tea Party dynamics of 2010 mean that there are more “protest votes” up for grabs than is normally the case in Idaho gubernatorial elections? Will more Idahoans be interested in a self-proclaimed Libertarian? Will an articulate, independent woman draw votes from a Republican or a Democrat or both? With the economy dominating the issues, will a single-issue, pro-life candidate register? What if Kemp, Dunlap and Pro-Life collectively pull seven or eight of even more percent? At whose expense will those votes come? And in which parts of the state?
If this gubernatorial election turns out to a close one, it will be interesting to see the election night totals in the handful of counties where Otter ran neck-in-neck with his hard right GOP primary opponent Rex Rammell. Rammell actually beat Otter in the GOP primary in Benewah and Idaho Counties and came within a few hundred votes of the governor in Twin Falls and Cassia Counties. All told, nearly 45% of all Republican voters in the May primary voted for someone other than Butch Otter.
On November 2nd will these folks “come home” to the GOP candidate? They usually do. Will they decide in some numbers simply not to vote, or might they decide, in the spirit of “none of the above” with regard to the major candidates, to cast their lot with one of the three minor candidates on the ballot?
If Kemp, Dunlap and Pro-Life start to collectively accumulate votes above the historic threshold for minor party candidates in Idaho, and if there is a sizable undecided group that breaks in the next week to Allred or to the minor candidates, election night could be long and interesting. Under this scenario, Allred would need every vote Democrat Jerry Brady got against Otter in 2006 and three or four percentage points more to make it interesting. Brady polled just over 44% four years ago.
Twice in modern times – 1966 and 1986 – a winning candidate for governor of Idaho polled less than 50% of the vote. Both elections involved Andrus who won one and lost one. Could it happen again?
The only obvious path to a win for Allred is to keep Otter close to that 45% number in the recent Mason-Dixon survey and hope that the minor candidates do succeed in grabbing substantially more than their historic fair share of the total vote. Call it the less than 50% solution for Allred.
Then again with a major national tidal wave building for the GOP and with a tradition of Republican-leaning voters returning to their political roots on election day, Otter should be in the catbird seat.
We’ll have to wait and read the Tea Party tea leaves on November 3rd and see if the top spot on the Idaho ballot has been impacted by the automatic 3% or maybe even more.