Election News

The Road to 270: South Dakota

January 27, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.

South Dakota

South Dakota has produced some of the most influential Democrats of the last half century. Tom Daschle served as the Senate Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003. The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, was a former South Dakota Senator.

The state, however, has voted Republican in nearly every presidential election in its history. Democrats have only won here four times, most recently in 1964. However, the state’s populist character has allowed downballot Democrats to win favor with rural communities even as it repeatedly voted Republican for president. This populism traces back to 1892, the first presidential election in which South Dakota participated. First, though, we’ll look at the state’s pre-statehood era.  

Before Statehood

South Dakota and North Dakota share much of the same history. The following is from our article on North Dakota:

“Congress originally organized the Dakota Territory in 1861. It was composed of land given to the United States from Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris and from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. During the early and mid 1800s, the U.S. traded with, repressed, and eventually drove out Native Americans in the territory. 

Both North and South Dakota entered the United States on November 2, 1889, becoming the 39th and 40th states, respectively. Regional differences, as well as disputes over a future capital, pushed the formation of two independent states.”

While North Dakota was mostly settled for its farmland, South Dakota had gold. The metal was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874 and settlers flocked. Between 1870 and 1880, the region’s population grew over 800%, from under 12,000 to over 98,000. 

The population continued to grow as railroad expanded through the region allowing easier travel and transport of goods. Construction on the railroad began in 1872 and spread quickly. The population would continue to grow through the 1920s as miners came for gold and homesteaders settled on open farmland. Population peaked in the 1930 Census with nearly 700,000 people.

As with much of the country's westward expansion, South Dakota's early growth often came at the expense of indigenous people. A particularly infamous example, the Wounded Knee Massacre, took place little more than a year after statehood. It marked the climax of federal efforts to repress Indian tribes of the Great Plains.

Early Politics of South Dakota

From its first election in 1892, South Dakota has leaned Republican. Most South Dakota settlers had come from the Midwest or New England. These northerners were natural Republican constituencies, a relic of the Civil War.

The state also had a populist streak. This was due in part to its agrarian character. In 1892, the Populist and Republican parties rallied around Free Silver, a policy to increase the money supply and help indebted farmers. Democrats wanted to stick to the Gold Standard.  The Populist and Republican candidates received a combined 87% of South Dakota’s vote. Again in 1896, South Dakota voted for the populist Free Silver candidate, although this year the parties had flipped. The Free Silver candidate was Democrat William Jennings Bryan. He edged out Republican William McKinley by less than 1%.  

Outside of these election in which the currency question was paramount, South Dakota has been reliably Republican in presidential elections. It would only vote for three more Democrats after 1896.

In 1912, South Dakota was the only state without the Republican Party’s official candidate, William Taft, on the ballot. Progressives controlled the state party and decided not to offer a slate of electors for Taft. They instead decided to put up electors for Theodore Roosevelt who had recently split with the Republican Party and was running as a third-party candidate. South Dakota was the only state in which Roosevelt received a majority of the popular vote.  

After 1912, South Dakota voted Republican until 1932. From 1920 through 2016, North Dakota and South Dakota would vote the same way in every presidential election.

New Deal Through the 1970’s

Like other agriculture-heavy states, South Dakota suffered during the Great Depression. A farming crisis in the 1920s had already weakened the state’s economy and the ensuing depression exacerbated the problems. In 1932, South Dakota voted for Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal which promised government assistance. South Dakota ranked 7th among the states for per capita spending by New Deal programs.

In 1940, Midwestern native Wendell Willkie was able to win back rural, small town areas in the Northern U.S. Through these victories, he was able to bring South Dakota back to its Republican roots even as he lost the election to Roosevelt. From that year on, with the exception of 1964, South Dakota would vote Republican in every presidential contest.”

While South Dakota did vote Republican consistently, it was not always by large margins. In 1972, 1976, 1988, 1992, and 1996, Republicans only won South Dakota by single digits. The state’s voters also frequently split their ballots and elected downballot Democrats. In 1962, South Dakota elected George McGovern to the Senate — a seat he held through 1981. The state also elected Democratic Senators James Abourezk, Tom Daschle, and Tim Johnson who held office from 1973 to 1979, 1987 to 2005, and 1997 to 2015. Democrats had similar downballot success in the House.

Even so, South Dakota was still red on the presidential level. The state even voted against its own senator, George McGovern, in 1972. Like North Dakota, South Dakota’s agrarian populism allowed Democrats who promised to help struggling rural communities win down-ballot even as Republicans dominated presidential politics.  

Recent History

In the 1980s, South Dakota began to change. Drawn by low corporate taxes and less regulation, companies began to build branches in Sioux Falls. The city’s first big catch was Citibank in 1981. A financial sector sprung up in the city as other banks including Capital One and Wells Fargo made the same move. Soon other industries with ties to the financial sector — including pharmaceutical and cybersecurity — developed. Amy Sullivan and the National Journal write that the “presence of Citibank in Sioux Falls has played a significant role in transforming a once sleepy agriculture-dependent town into a growing regional powerhouse with a number of thriving industries outside the financial sector.”

In 1980, Sioux Falls had just over 80,000 residents. Now it has reached nearly 200,000.  This influx accounts for much of the state’s overall growth. The state’s total population has grown from just under 700,000 to around 900,000 in the same 40-year period. As in other states, people are leaving South Dakota’s rural regions to live in the more densely populated urban areas.

Even with the banking boom, agriculture, mining, and manufacturing are still major employers in the state. Perhaps its unsurprising that a state composed of blue collar, rural communities and a city dependent on low regulation and taxes has shifted decisively towards Republicans.

Recent Presidential Elections

The 2000 election was a tipping point for South Dakota. While the Republican margin in 1996 was just 3%, in 2000, Republican George Bush defeated Al Gore by 22%. Al Gore’s brand of liberalism and environmentalism was not popular in much of the Mountain West, including South Dakota.

From 2000 on, South Dakota was far more Republican than the nation overall. Even in 2008, as Barack Obama won the national popular vote by 7%, McCain carried South Dakota by 8%. In 2012, Mitt Romney expanded that margin to 18%. In 2016 Donald Trump won the state by 30%, the largest margin in the state since 1952.

While Obama had won 16 counties in 2008 and 10 counties in 2012, Clinton won just 5 in 2016. Trump improved upon Romney’s margins in every county in the state. The president’s cultural conservatism and economic populism appealed to South Dakotans.

Until recently, Republican victories at the top of the ticket have not prevented Democratic success downballot. As recently as 2008, a Democrat won the state’s only House seat. As politics has become more nationalized and partisan, this ticket splitting has stopped. No Democrat has won a statewide election since that 2008 House race.

This November, South Dakota will elect a president, senator, and representative. Anything other than a Republican trifecta would be a major surprise. Outside of a complete party collapse, South Dakota is safely Republican.

However, before we get to the general election, we go through the nomination process. This kicks off, as it has since 1972, with the Iowa caucuses next Monday. South Dakota and Nebraska, which both share a border with Iowa, go much later in the calendar. While the geographic difference is small, the gulf in attention from presidential aspirants is huge.

Next Week:  Arkansas

Prior reports in this series:

Washington, D.C. Wyoming West Virginia Oklahoma Hawaii
Alabama North Dakota New York Idaho Vermont

 

Andrew Yang Qualifies for February 7 Democratic Debate

January 26, 2020

A 5% or higher result in two national polls released Sunday has qualified Andrew Yang for the next Democratic debate.  It will be held February 7, in Manchester, New Hampshire, four days before that state's primary. 

Yang had missed the cut for the party's most recent debate, held January 14. He will join the six candidates who were on the stage that night: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Any Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Elizabeth Warren.  The deadline for others to qualify is February 6.  

Yang received 7% in an ABC News/Washington Post survey and 5% in a poll released by Fox News.  This gives him 4 qualifying national polls of 5% or more. The 7% mark is the highest level of support he has received thus far in any national poll accredited for the debates by the Democratic National Committee.

Related:  All the latest Democratic Primary and Caucus Polls

Poll: Sanders Takes Lead in Iowa Caucuses

January 25, 2020

Sen. Bernie Sanders has taken the lead among likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa, per a poll released Saturday by The New York Times and Siena College. Sanders saw 25% support, a gain of 6 points from the last Time/Siena poll conducted in late October.  That gain appears to have come at the expense of another progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The only other notable change in the race was a doubling of support - to 8% - received by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. 

Sanders also led the CNN/Des Moines Register Poll released January 10. This poll, conducted by Selzer & Company, is generally considered the 'gold standard' of Iowa polling. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has led a couple other polls in the interim, with the net being that the two are basically tied in the overall Iowa polling average.  Note that the final pre-caucus poll from Selzer & Company will be released next Saturday, February 1, at 9:00 PM ET. The reveal will be broadcast live on CNN.

General Election

The Times/Siena poll also surveyed Iowa registered voters for the November election. President Trump was ahead in each tested match-up. He leads former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg (by 1%), Biden (2%), Klobuchar and Warren (5%), Sanders (6%) and former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg (8%). The Buttigieg and Biden results are within the margin of error.

Current Polling Averages: National and Four Early States

January 24, 2020

Here's a summary of the current national polling averages, as well as those in the four states that will hold their primary or caucus in February.

Joe Biden has a small lead over Bernie Sanders nationally, both are well out in front of the rest of the 12 person field. However, the picture becomes much less clear when looking at the states that kick off the 2020 election calendar. This is important for a couple reasons. First, delegates are won at the state level, not nationally. More importantly, because the primaries/caucuses occur over an extended period, each contest will be affected by the results in the ones that precede it.

In Iowa, which holds its caucuses a week from Monday, the polling shows four candidates bunched at the top.  New Hampshire is shaping up the same way, although worth recalling that Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by 22 points here in 2016. In limited polling, Biden and Sanders are leading the field in Nevada, with Biden well out in front in South Carolina. However, it is worth noting that Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are polling well ahead of their national average in Iowa and New Hampshire. If the results play out this way, those two candidates could see more support develop in the latter two states. 

Tom Steyer has been spending heavily in Nevada and South Carolina. He has moved into double-digits in both states, helping qualify him for the February 7 debate stage. However, he's unlikely to be in the top 4 in Iowa or New Hampshire, so some of that support could erode before the other two contests.

Mike Bloomberg is a wild card in all of this. He is now tied with Buttigieg for fourth nationally. However, he is skipping1 the early states to focus on Super Tuesday (March 3) and beyond. It is possible that his numbers will drop - at least temporarily - once the voting begins and he is not part of the story.  The former NYC mayor could be in a better position if no one emerges as an obvious frontrunner before Super Tuesday.

1There is no formal ballot access in Iowa, so it is possible that Bloomberg could "crash the party" and see support in the caucuses. We're told his name is listed on the Iowa Democratic Party's results reporting form.

The Road to 270: Vermont

January 20, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.

Vermont

Vermont, now heavily Democratic, was once fertile Republican territory. The first presidential nominee of that newly formed party received 78% of the vote here in 1856. The state would vote with the GOP for the next 26 elections. That single party streak is the longest in American history. Between 1856 and 1988, the state only voted once for a Democratic nominee.

Vermont has often been an anomaly. Its state legislature was the first to legalize same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana use. It was one of just two states to resist Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide. This nonconformist tradition traces back nearly four centuries, before Vermont was called Vermont.

Settlement to Statehood

Though Vermont is now a part of New England, it was the French who originally settled here. The French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, was the first European to reach the territory and he claimed it as a part of New France. It was over a half century later, in 1666, that the first permanent settlement would actually be built.

French control continued until the territory was relinquished following the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended French rule and handed the colony over to the British.

At the time, the land was called the New Hampshire Grants and claimed by New Hampshire. In 1764, New York claimed parts of the territory, threatening the New Hampshire land owners. A militia called the Green Mountain Boys organized to defend against the newcomers. After successfully fighting off the New Yorkers, representatives of the New Hampshire Grants declared the land an independent republic in 1777. They named it New Connecticut.

Later that year, New Connecticut renamed itself Vermont. From the beginning, Vermont was ahead of its time. Its original constitution abolished slavery and instituted universal male suffrage.

After Vermont settled residual New York land claims and ratified the U.S. Constitution, it was admitted to the Union on March 4, 1791. It was the first state created outside of the original 13 colonies and was admitted as a pair to Kentucky in order to continue the balance of political power between north and south.

Three periods in the state’s political history were especially formative. First is the development of the Republican Party; second is that party's dominance from 1856 through 1988; third is the late 20th century shift to staunchly Democratic. We’ll first look at these three eras and then get to Vermont’s contemporary political landscape.

The Development of the GOP

Vermont’s political identity as a loyal Republican state traces back to the Anti-Masonic Party. The party opposed the Masons, a secret fraternal society that was seen as subversive and antidemocratic. The Anti-Masonic Party was the United States’ first major third party and found the most success in Vermont. In the 1832 presidential election, Vermont cast its seven electoral votes for the Anti-Masonic Party candidate, the only state to do so. The party quickly broke down as the Masons began to lose influence and fear of the group faded.

After the Anti-Masonic Party’s decline, many of its members joined the Whig Party. The Whig Party’s primary concern was shifting federal power from the Executive Branch (the president) to the Legislative Branch (Congress).  The defining issue for Vermonters, however, was slavery. They had been opposed to the practice going back to the 18th Century. The Whigs, while not explicitly an anti-slavery party, better reflected the abolitionist position of the population than the Democratic Party of that era. The state was pushed further into the Whig camp due to ethnic polarization; Protestant farmers, of which Vermont had many, broadly favored the Whigs. From 1836 to 1852, Vermont voted for the Whig Party in each presidential election. 1

1These five elections represent the entire history of the party in presidential elections. Two Whigs were elected, William Henry Harrison (1840) and Zachary Taylor (1848). Both died in office.

The Whig Party fractured before the 1856 election over the question of slavery. In its place came the Republican Party. The new party, formed primarily as a vehicle to oppose slavery, attracted abolitionist Whigs and took hold in Vermont for over a century. Unlike some coastal states, Vermont did not have significant trade ties to the South. This made it even less friendly to the Southern economy and its reliance on slavery. In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln beat Democrat Stephen Douglas 76% to 19% here, his best showing of any state in the nation.

A Century of Republican Dominance

Vermont would continue to vote Republican for the next century. The 1912 election, perhaps better than any other, illustrates the state’s unwavering Republican loyalty. That year the Republican Party was split between its official nominee, William Taft, and a popular former Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a third-party candidate. The divide handed Democrat Woodrow Wilson a 435-88 Electoral College victory even as he only carried 42% of the vote to Roosevelt and Taft’s combined 51%. The Republican Party’s official nominee, Taft, only won the plurality in two states, one of which was Vermont.

Jump ahead to 1932 and Vermont again votes Republican in a Democratic landslide. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, which brought together labor unions, city political machines, minorities, urban intellectuals and farmers, ushered in a new era of Democratic Party dominance. Roosevelt carried every state except six, one of which was Vermont. Results in 1936 were even more stark than in 1932. That year, Roosevelt won 61% of the popular vote and carried every state except two — Vermont and Maine.

Roosevelt won over city machines, labor, minorities, and white southern farmers, groups that were not heavily represented in Vermont. The state was largely made up of conservative white protestants working as farmers, factory workers, and miners, groups that didn’t fit well into FDR’s coalition.

Change Begins

In the 1960s, Vermont began to change. Urbanites from New York and Massachusetts began looking for a quieter life or vacation homes and Vermont was the destination. Next door, New Hampshire also became a home for these city escapees. The two states, however, took different paths of environmental regulation and taxation. Vermont put an emphasis on preserving its pristine environment. In doing so it attracted environmentalists, progressives, and younger, liberal professionals. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, with its low taxes and “Live Free or Die” motto pulled in conservative-minded newcomers.

Vermont’s vacation economy grew as people built summer homes and ski resorts. Similarly, IBM built a production and design facility outside Burlington in 1957. The facility’s success drew in other technology companies, eventually creating a small technology hub in the city.

As more newcomers moved to Vermont, a divide in the populace developed. Old Vermont comprised the traditional, rural, fiscally conservative, less educated, and ancestrally Republican old Vermonters. The new Vermont was younger, more educated and liberal.

The first crack in the state’s century old Republican dominance came in 1964. Vermont, in voting for Democrat Lyndon Johnson did not cast its electoral votes for the Republican nominee for the first time since 1856. However, that was short-lived. The state snapped back to its Republican trend in 1968 and voted for the party through George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988.

In 1992, the new Democratic coalition overtook the old Republican guard. Since Democrat Bill Clinton’s victory that year, Democrats have carried Vermont in every presidential election.

Recent Presidential Politics

Democrats have carried Vermont by double digits in every presidential election since 1992. In 2008, Barack Obama routed John McCain by 37%, far outpacing any recent Democratic nominee. Four years later, Obama again dominated the state, beating Mitt Romney by 36%. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Vermont with a 26% margin. This was a decisive victory, but less commanding than Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories.

The trend in Vermont was the same as the nation overall, with Trump improving in rural regions and Clinton in urban ones. Trump performed much better in the “Northeast Kingdom”, the three counties in the northeast corner of the state. Trump managed to flip one of these, Essex County, making him the first Republican to carry any county in Vermont since 2004. Essex County is the least dense county in the state, making it the most inclined to lean Republican.

Trump received a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than Romney in 2012. The tighter margins are mostly due to Clinton bleeding support to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. While Obama won 67% of the vote in 2012, Clinton only carried 57%. Seven percent of the total vote count were write-in votes, almost all of which went to Sanders.

Clinton only performed better than Obama in Chittenden County. The county is home to the state’s biggest and most dense city, Burlington. The city is more diverse than the rest of the state, in part due to being a major resettlement city for refugees and is home to a growing technology sector.

A Counterintuitive State

Gallup Polling recently labeled Vermont the 3rd most liberal and the least religious state in the nation. The state has a Democratic-Socialist Senator, Bernie Sanders, who flattened Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary by 86% to 14%.

Vermont also broke progressive ground in legalizing same sex marriage and recreational marijuana use. The state has strict environmental regulations and passed its own Clean Air Act. As of 2014, Burlington reported that 100% of its energy comes from renewable sources. The state even has a land trust that buys farmland in order to slow the collapse of local, family owned farms.

These progressive achievements seem contradictory to recent Republicans successes in Vermont. The state had a Republican governor from 2003-2009, years when Democrats easily won the state in presidential elections. The current governor, Republican Phil Scott, won his race in 2016 as Clinton carried the state by 26%. Scott won re-election2 in 2018 by 15%.

2 Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states with a two-year term for governor.

The GOP success is largely due to the type of Republicans that run in the state. Vermont Republicans are notoriously moderate. Governor Phil Scott brands himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate. He’s a pro-choice Republican who supports same-sex marriage and backed the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

Vermont’s idiosyncratic political landscape is also partly responsible for Republican success in a deep blue state. The state does not have party registration and holds open primaries, which can weaken voter loyalty and party ties. The state is also small in size and population. With only 620,000 people and 9,200 square miles, retail campaigning is easier and candidates can personally interact with a critical mass of voters.

As the country becomes increasingly polarized by demographics, Vermont could continue the rightward drift that was evident in 2016. The state’s white, aging, and rural characteristics could make it a long-term target for Republicans. Even with this trend, though, Vermont is safe for Democrats in November. The Democratic nominee is all but certain to win the state and will likely do so by a wide margin.

Next Week:  South Dakota

Prior reports in this series:

Washington, D.C. Wyoming West Virginia Oklahoma Hawaii
 
Alabama North Dakota New York Idaho  

 

DNC Announces Qualifying Criteria for February 7 Debate

January 17, 2020

Qualifying criteria for the next candidate debate have been announced by the Democratic National Committee.  The debate will take place February 7, four days before the New Hampshire primary.  Candidates can make the stage by meeting either a Delegate Threshold or what the Committee is calling an Alternate Threshold.

The Delegate Threshold is new and seems pretty straightforward. Candidates that earn one or more of the 41 available pledged delegates in the February 3 Iowa caucuses qualify for the debate.  

The Alternate Threshold is a renaming of the Polling plus Fundraising requirement in place for the most recent debate. These requirements have changed very little.  

Candidates must have at least 225,000 individual donors, with a minimum of 1,000 unique donors from at least 20 states.  This is unchanged from January's requirement, so all six hopefuls on the stage for this past Tuesday's debate have already met this criteria.

Candidates using the Alternate Threshold must also meet a polling requirement. There are two pathways here.  The first requires 5% support in four1 qualifying national or early state polls. Alternately, candidates can see at least 7% support in two qualifying early state polls.  This is also unchanged, with one exception. As the Iowa caucuses will have been completed, the Committee is defining early states as New Hampshire (February 11), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29). Polls must be from DNC-accredited pollsters and be released from December 13, 2019 through February 6. 

The February 7 debate will take place at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. It will air nationally on ABC. Two other debates are scheduled later in the month  Candidates will meet February 19 in Las Vegas, prior to the Nevada caucuses on the 22nd. On the 25th, there will be a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, in advance of that state's February 29 primary.

1 Each of the four polls must be from a different pollster or, if by the same pollster, must be in different geographical areas.

 

 

Minnesota First State to Begin In-Person Early Voting for 2020 Primaries

January 17, 2020

Although the official kick-off of the 2020 election calendar is Iowa on February 3, early in-person voting gets underway Friday in Minnesota.  The state's early voting period begins 46 days prior to an election. Vermont follows Saturday. Both states will hold their primaries on Super Tuesday, March 3. 

Some absentee ballots have been mailed in New Hampshire and North Carolina. Many more states will provide in-person and/or absentee early voting in the weeks ahead. 

The vote-by-mail period in delegate-rich California begins February 3, the same date as the Iowa caucuses. It continues until February 25, a week before that state's March 3 primary.

Liz Cheney Passes on Senate Run, Will Remain in House

January 16, 2020

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming will not run for the state's open U.S. Senate seat this year.  Cheney will remain in the U.S. House where she has experienced a rapid rise through the GOP ranks. 

Sen. Mike Enzi announced last year that he would not seek a 5th term this year. Despite Cheney's decision, Republicans are heavily favored to retain the seat. The frontrunner for the GOP nomination appears to be former Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who held the state's at-large congressional seat for four terms before retiring in 2016.

Separately, Sabato's Crystal Ball updated two Senate ratings for 2020. They moved New Hampshire from Leans to Likely Democratic, while Virginia goes from Likely to Safe Democratic.   We've updated their interactive map to reflect these changes.

Cory Booker Drops Presidential Bid

January 13, 2020

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey ended his presidential bid Monday.  Despite campaigning for nearly a year - entered the race last February 1 - he had been averaging only 2-3% nationally and in the four early states. While that placed him ahead of several candidates in the still-large field, it was no longer enough to qualify him for the debate stage. 

As the New York Times notes, "the departure of Mr. Booker from the crowded Democratic field, heralded at the outset as the most diverse in history, leaves just one African-American candidate, Deval Patrick, vying for the Democratic nomination in a party where black voters are an essential bloc of the Democratic base." Effectively, that means the party will not have a black nominee this year as Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, has received close to 0% support in polling.

12 candidates remain in the race. Six of them will face-off in Tuesday's debate in Iowa, which comes just shy of three weeks before that state holds its 2020 caucuses.

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The Road to 270: Idaho

January 13, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.

Idaho

Pre-Statehood

Through the Revolutionary War and American Independence, much of North America was still unexplored by Europeans or their descendants. This included the territory that would eventually become Idaho. Lewis and Clark first explored the region in 1805 which was, at the time, home to about 8,000 Native Americans.  

Quickly following the expedition, settlers began arriving in the region. Missionaries, farmers, fur traders, and miners traveled along the Oregon Trail and many settled in the territory that would later become Idaho. Ownership of the land was initially disputed, as it was claimed by both Britain and the United States. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 brought the dispute to an end. Two years later, the United States established the Oregon Territory, which comprised today’s Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and eastern portions of Montana and Wyoming.

In 1853, the Washington Territory took over all of the Oregon Territory except for the region we now know as Oregon. With the discovery of gold, and later the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the population of the region grew and in 1863 the United States established the Idaho Territory. It originally comprised modern day Idaho as well as nearly all of Montana and Wyoming. Soon, the territory shed most of the future Montana and Wyoming, and by 1868 Idaho had the boundaries of the modern state.

The territory was divided between the north and south. The north was composed mostly of settlers who had come to the territory as miners and loggers. Meanwhile, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons) settled the southern and eastern portion of the state. Many of these Mormons had migrated from Utah.

Over time, the north became anti-Mormon, a divide that continued to grow through the 1880s. The antipathy led to the passage of the Idaho Test Oath Act in 1884. The Act was meant to deny Mormons, who made up about a quarter of the electorate and voted overwhelmingly Democratic, the right to vote.

After the restrictions were implemented, the territory became staunchly Republican. Intent on adding a Republican leaning state to the Union, national Republicans began to push for statehood in 1888. Two years later, in 1890, Congress and Benjamin Harrison admitted Idaho as the 43rd state. 

The anti-Mormonism of the 1880s was nothing new for the Republican Party. In 1856, the National Republican Platform named polygamy and slavery the “twin relics of barbarism.” Polygamy was a relatively common practice among Mormons, and the platform, as well as the aforementioned Act, were clear messages opposing this lifestyle.

The Act was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1890.  Following that, the leader of the Church encouraged his followers to acquiesce to civil laws regarding marriage. The state legislature responded by repealing the anti-Mormon voting restrictions in 1893. From then on, Mormons in Idaho were free to vote and hold elected office.

Presidential Election History

These new voters, and a populist groundswell, upset the Republican Party’s expectation that Idaho would lean Republican from the beginning. In fact, it wasn’t until the state’s fourth election in 1904 that Idaho would vote Republican on the presidential level. The first three elections show the state’s populist roots and the power of the newly enfranchised Mormon population.

At the time of the 1892 presidential election, Idaho was still divided between Republicans in the north and anti-Republican Mormons in the south. Voting laws would be in place for another year, greatly restricting Mormons’ right to vote in the south. But a populist sentiment had been growing among the silver miners and farmers who supported moving away from the gold standard. The Republican nominee, Benjamin Harrison, supported the gold standard. The Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland, didn’t run in Idaho, allowing support to coalesce around the Populist Party’s candidate James Weaver. Weaver beat Harrison by 10% in Idaho, validating Cleveland's decision not to run in the state.

Idaho followed a similar trend in the next two elections of 1896 and 1900. In these elections Idaho’s populist and Mormon voters together gave the populist Democrat, William Jennings Bryan1, resounding victories in the state. In 1896, Bryan beat William McKinley by 57% in Idaho even as he lost the national popular vote by 3%. Four years later, McKinley was coasting to a second term on a strong economy and victory in the Spanish-American War. The incumbent also had the progressive, energetic, and popular Theodore Roosevelt as a running mate. Nevertheless, Bryan won Idaho again, though with a smaller margin of 4%.

Four years later, in 1904, Republicans finally carried Idaho. Theodore Roosevelt ran as a progressive Republican and won Idaho with a 40% margin. While the state would vote for Democrats in future elections, they were generally either landslide elections or unique circumstances.

The only Democratic presidential nominee to win Idaho between 1904 and 1928 was Woodrow Wilson. Wilson won the state in 1912 due to Theodore Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote and again in 1916 when he ran on keeping the United States out of World War I. Otherwise, Idaho, along with most northern states, voted regularly for the Republican nominee. The state’s progressive and independent streak was also present throughout the first quarter of the century, as socialist candidates received 7%, 11% and 6% in 1908, 1912, and 1916. The Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette received 37% of Idaho votes in 1924, outpacing the Democratic nominee by over 20%. 

In 1932, with the realigning election of Franklin Roosevelt, Idaho swung back to the Democratic Party. This was also the first election since statehood in which Idaho elected a Democratic Representative to the House. As with other farming states, Idaho had suffered during the Great Depression. The average Idahoan’s income dropped 49% between 1929 and 1932, placing it behind just six other states in that grim ranking. FDR’s New Deal appealed to the struggling population and won him a blanket victory in the Mountain West states. These western and northern farming states generally received the most in New Deal expenditures per capita during the 1930s. 

While Idaho continued to vote Democratic on the presidential level through 1948, by 1940 the state’s rightward trend is apparent. The Democratic margins between each election from 1936 to 1948 were 30%, 9%, 3.5%, and 2.7%. In 1952, the moderate Eisenhower carried Idaho by 31%. From this election on, Idaho would vote for the Republican nominee with one exception in the Democratic landslide of 1964. Since then, no Democratic nominee has received more than 37% of the popular vote in the state.

However, beginning in the 1930s and lasting through the 1970s, Idahoans were willing to split their tickets. With the exception of 1951 – 1956, Idaho had at least one Democratic U.S. Senator from 1933 through 1980. Similarly, Idaho elected several Democratic House members through much of the mid-century.

As the parties began to sort along religious lines in the 1970s, Democrats started losing their downballot power in Idaho. Mormons, put off by the Democratic Party’s embrace of socially liberal policies like abortion and gay rights, steadily shifted towards the Republican Party. The decline of the union heavy mining and timber industries also undercut Democratic power and organizing strength in the state. And while Democrats did have a brief period of electoral success from 1988 to 1990, this died off quickly and voters quickly fell back in line as Republicans.

As the parties continued to sort ideologically, racially, and demographically, Idaho moved further right.  Following the 1992 midterms, only one Democrat — in a 2008 House race — would win a federal election in Idaho.

A State in-Flux

Over the past 30 years, Idaho’s population has nearly doubled, growing from 1 million to 1.8 million. In 2019, Idaho was the fastest growing state in the nation by percentage. It grew by 2.1%, outpacing the runner up, Nevada, by 0.4%. People are moving to Idaho for jobs in the booming tech industry, an affordable cost of living, and the state’s natural beauty.

The population boom originally worried conservatives. They believed that people moving in from neighboring states including California, Washington, and Oregon would bring west coast liberalism with them. This didn’t ensue, as many of the new Idahoans were leaving their homes for cultural reasons and fit nicely into the more libertarian ethos of Idaho’s Republican Party.

While the growth hasn’t transformed Idaho’s politics, it has changed the character of the state. The potato-farming, religious, rural Idaho has become a center for innovation and startups. The state ranks high among various indicators of entrepreneurship and has one of the highest number of patents per capita in the country.  The industry leaders in Idaho — Micron, Hewlett-Packard, Simplot — have helped built a techy, entrepreneurial ecosystem in the capital city, Boise.

Unlike the Silicon Valley in California, Boise is not a liberal bastion. The entrepreneurs and startups were drawn to the state's less restrictive regulatory environment and low taxes, and generally support the Republican Party’s mission to that end.

Current Political Landscape

Since the turn of the century, no presidential Democratic candidate has come within 25% of winning Idaho and its four Electoral College votes. The GOP nominee won in 2008 by 25%, in 2012 by 32%, and in 2016 by 32%. 

Donald Trump received 5% less of the vote in Idaho than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Most of this vote went to Evan McMullin, the third-party candidate who won 7% of the state. McMullin, who is Mormon himself, had the greatest appeal among Idaho’s Mormon voters who are clustered in the southeast. McMullin outran Hillary Clinton in a total of seven counties, all of which are in this region of the state. Of these counties, he ran strongest in Madison County, winning 30% of the vote to Trump’s 57% and Clinton’s 8%.

This ongoing Republican dominance is in line with national trends. Idaho's population is 63% non-college white, the core of the Republican base. It’s also the 7th least densely populated state, with an average of just 22 people per square mile.

The state is also 40% Evangelical Protestant or Mormon. The Idaho Republican Party reflects this religious bent, with the preamble to the party’s platform beginning “We are Republicans because we believe the strength of our nation lies with our faith and reliance on God our Creator.” The socially conservative streak continues through the platform, which pushes legislators to “protect the traditional family”, opposes abortion, supports the death penalty, and encourages “swift and just punishment for the lawbreaker”. This Republican Party has a lock on the state legislature, holding ¾ of both chambers.

From statehood through the 1960s Idaho was politically competitive. In the current era of partisanship, however, Idaho has moved steadily into the GOP camp. This trend looks likely to continue in November, making Idaho a safely Republican state from the presidential election down to the Statehouse. 

1 No person has ever won more electoral votes without becoming president than William Jennings Bryan. He amassed 493 across three elections (1896, 1900 and 1908).

Next Week:  Vermont

Prior reports in this series:

Washington, D.C. Wyoming West Virginia Oklahoma Hawaii
   
Alabama North Dakota New York