Egan, Guest Post, Idaho Politics, Polling

The Great Divide

Idaho’s Three Political Parties

According to a new statewide survey of Idaho voters, the state now effectively has three political factions – very economically and socially conservative folks, economically conservative but less socially doctrinaire voters and a shrinking group of Democrats.

The three factions – think of them as almost three different political parties – has served to fracture the Idaho political landscape in a way that may make it even more difficult in the foreseeable future for so called moderates, and especially Democrats, to win major political office.

Right now 38% of Idahoans self-identify as Republican, another 32.5% call themselves Independents, who are affiliated with no party, and just over 24% say they are Democrats.

The new research was undertaken by my firm, Gallatin Public Affairs, in cooperation with respected national pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The Business Review will have a nice package on what the research says about public attitudes regarding the Idaho economy in its next edition and I’ll be devoting some space here over the next few days to a deeper dive into the numbers on a variety of issues.

We are fortunate to have been able to deploy the talents and insights of Greg Strimple on this project. As we say, Greg is kind of a big deal; an outstanding researcher and strategist and a relatively new resident of Idaho. Before relocating his family to Boise a year ago, Greg lived and worked on the east coast and provided first-rate public opinion research for major national clients and major Republican political campaigns. Greg did polling and strategy work for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and more recently helped elect a Republican governor in New Jersey and a U.S. Senator in Illinois. Greg’s polling firm – GS Strategy Group – is one of Idaho’s newest small businesses.

Greg and his family, like so many others, chose to live in Idaho because of our enviable lifestyle and fortunately the tools of the modern workplace allow him to live where he wants and still serve his national and regional clients.

Strimple’s research on the Idaho political divide finds, not surprisingly, that a strong plurality of Idahoans – 47.5% – consider themselves very or somewhat conservative. Another 29% describe themselves as moderates, while about 16% call themselves liberal.

Republicans meanwhile, who during the recent legislative session took action to limit their nominating primaries to real, card-carrying members of the party, are likely to continue to battle in a narrow range between the very conservative Republicans, deeply invested in social issues, and those Republicans who may be less consistently doctrinaire and line-up more consistently with what the Pew Center’s new survey calls “Main Street Republicans.” These voters tend to be low tax advocates and suspecious of government, but also concerned about education and the future of the economy.

(The new Pew research makes at least one point that I think tracks directly with our recent Idaho research. The far ends of the political spectrum – the far right and far left – are more extreme than ever, but the Independents are hardly a bunch of moderate, middle-of-the-roaders. Independents in Idaho and nationally amount to a swirling mass of diversity. The Independents are all over the political map – libertarian, social moderates and many disaffected – maybe even disillusioned – by both established parties.)

Idaho’s Republican fault lines, and we saw some of this in the recent legislative session, will likely focus on the clear divide between very socially conservative Republicans who are content, even happy, to limit the party to those who see the world as they do and what I’ll call “the bigger tent” GOP. To date, the first group is winning most of the important battles and clearly this is the fundamental base of the Idaho GOP.

Democrats meanwhile are, there is no nice way to say it, marginalized. They have little traction now outside of a handful of state legislative districts and their prospects in the immediate future, barring a Republican meltdown and a spectacularly attractive candidate, seem genuinely bleak.

Strimple’s Idaho analysis also shows a deep and potentially paralyzing divide that breaks down along demographic more than partisan lines. Generally speaking older, more rural, less well educated, less wealthy Idahoans have a very different view of the state’s economic future than do younger, more educated, better off voters.

The first group tends to look forward and see the Idaho that we have historically known with traditional jobs in construction, manufacturing and natural resources. This group thinks agriculture will be the dominate industry over the next decade. The second group looks ahead and sees an Idaho economy built on more technology, more innovation and more trade.

Our research project also included a survey of Idaho Business Review subscribers, a cross section of small and large business leaders. These business leaders tend to be somewhat divided, as well, concerning the future of the Idaho economy, but they are also more likely to think that industries dependent on technology, like energy and health care, will play an ever more important role in our future.

The political significance of this research, seems to me, turns on the question of who in the next generation of Idaho political leadership finds a way to connect with voters as a responsible fiscal conservative who also has a vision for the future of the Idaho economy.

Idaho voters are pretty pessimistic right now about any real improvement in the economy in the near term. A candidate who can give voters a sense of optimism about the state’s economic future, while not offending their generally small government, low tax notions, will probably have a bright future.