TWIN FALLS • It has been decades since a Republican presidential candidate had to worry about winning Idaho. How will Donald Trump do here?
Despite Trump’s lopsided loss in the Republican primary on March 8, polling suggests Trump would still easily beat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head match-up in the Gem State. But the same polls say Bernie Sanders, who is well behind Clinton in delegates but who won the Idaho Democratic caucus by almost 4-to-1 and whose campaign got a shot in the arm with a win in Indiana on Tuesday night, could make things interesting.
Trump has been the favorite of Republican primary voters nationwide, but Ted Cruz, who dropped out Tuesday evening after losing the Indiana primary, beat Trump by 17 percent in Idaho, with a particularly strong showing for Cruz in the Mormon-majority counties of southeastern Idaho that mirrored the vote in Utah.
Trump has had little public support from elected Republicans or party officials in Idaho or anywhere else up to this point — not surprising for someone whose independence and anti-establishment rhetoric is part of his appeal. Many Idaho lawmakers endorsed Cruz, and a handful had publicly supported Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race in March. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter had endorsed John Kasich, who announced Wednesday he was ending his campaign, leaving Trump as the only Republican candidate.
However, there aren’t any signs yet that the “Never Trump” movement has made any inroads among the state’s elected Republicans. Otter has publicly stated he would back the GOP nominee, even if it is Trump, as have House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill.
Speaking to Idaho Falls’ KID Newsradio 590 Wednesday morning, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who was a Rand Paul supporter originally and switched to Cruz after Paul dropped out, analyzed Trump’s success and was critical both of Trump and of his party’s establishment. Trump, Labrador said, has run an interesting campaign and brought new voters into the Republican fold.
“I don’t think all of it has been done through the best methods, but it has been very effective and successful for him,” Labrador said. “And I hope he can be equally effective as the nominee now.”
Labrador predicted conservatives will coalesce, maybe not around Trump but against Clinton. Trump knows he is weak with conservatives, Labrador said, and there is at least a chance Trump will pick conservatives for positions such as vice president, or Supreme Court or his Cabinet.
“If you think about our two choices, unfortunately I don’t think they’re the greatest choice, but you know who Hillary Clinton is going to nominate for the Supreme Court … With Donald Trump, at least there’s a chance he’s going to nominate somebody like Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court, or (Utah Sen.) Mike Lee,” Labrador said.
Staff for the rest of Idaho’s D.C. delegation didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday. U.S. Sen. Jim Risch had backed Rubio originally; he said on CNN a month ago that he backed Cruz be default, since, Risch predicted, Trump would lose badly to Clinton and Cruz was the only other candidate left at that point who could win the Republican nomination.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo haven’t publicly backed anybody; both had, in interviews early in the campaign season when the Republican field was much bigger, listed off a few of their preferred candidates, and Trump didn’t make the list for either. Simpson has expressed concerns in the past about some of Trump’s controversial comments, while Crapo said last summer Trump was obviously striking a chord with voters and the party leadership should pay attention.
Polling done in mid-April shows Trump beating Clinton in Idaho 49-32, with 19 percent undecided. However, against Sanders, Trump is up just 45-43, within the poll’s 4 percent margin of error. Two-thirds of Republican respondents said they would back Trump in a hypothetical match-up against Clinton, while 4 percent would vote for Clinton, 16 percent would vote for someone else, 7 percent wouldn’t vote for president and 6 percent didn’t know. The Libertarian and Constitution parties both have ballot status in Idaho and it’s possible some disaffected conservatives who might have supported a different Republican nominee will vote for the presidential candidates of those parties instead.
How this might affect down-ballot races for positions such as Congress and state Legislature will be interesting to watch. Presidential election years are generally high turnout, which usually benefits Republicans.
“Typically, Democrats don’t do well in presidential election years, because the Republican candidate carries Idaho in a landslide and does so with significant coattails,” said Jim Weatherby, longtime political watcher and Boise State University emeritus professor.
This year, though, the certain nominee of the Republicans and the likely one of the Democrats is going to be the candidate who lost resoundingly in Idaho, and there are conservative opponents of Trump who say they will never vote for him and supporters of Sanders who say the same of Clinton. Weatherby said he could envision scenarios both where some conservatives hold their noses and vote for Clinton and where some liberals vote for Trump in protest.
This also makes turnout hard to predict — it could be lower than what would be usual for a presidential year, but it’s also possible some disaffected voters won’t vote for president but will still turn out for the other races.
“At this point, I think he (Trump) might have difficulty, but we’re years away from, in political terms, the general election,” Weatherby said. “Things could change substantially.”
The last Democrat to carry Idaho was Lyndon Johnson, who beat Republican Barry Goldwater in a national landslide in 1964 and eked out a narrow win over Goldwater in Idaho.
It also remains to be seen is how Cruz dropping out will affect the state Republican convention, which will be held June 2 to 4 in Nampa, and the selection of national convention delegates. This is the first year in recent memory where Idaho didn’t back the eventual nominee, and going on the primary results, 20 of Idaho’s 32 Republican delegates would be bound to Cruz on the first ballot, the rest to Trump, although Cruz could choose to release his delegates before the national convention in July. Delegates are chosen from lists provided by the campaigns, which both the Cruz and Trump camps have already submitted.