Small Potatoes? Do Idaho Primaries Matter?

Aligning with the nationwide trend away from caucuses, Idaho will hold presidential primary elections for both parties on March 10. This is the first time since 1976 both parties in Idaho will have presidential primary elections. The Idaho Republican Party switched to a primary election in the 2016 presidential election. After the unwieldiness of the 2016 caucuses, the Idaho Democratic Party will also hold a state-run primary instead of county party-organized caucuses in 2020. Though Idaho has not figured prominently in the presidential primary race in the past, a particularly contentious Democratic race and the transition from a caucus to a primary might make the state more relevant in the 2020 elections.

The Idaho presidential nomination contests do not usually receive much attention from the national media or presidential candidates, perhaps due the state’s small number of delegates (25 delegates for Democrats and 35 delegates for Republicans in 2020) and historically later date. However, the possibility of a drawn-out contest for the Democratic presidential nomination might help Idaho matter more in 2020. In early February, Michael Bloomberg opened a campaign office in Boise with plans to open more in other areas of the state. As of mid-February, his campaign was the only one with an official presence in the state.

Idaho is a solidly Republican state with a Republican super-majority in the state legislature.

Republicans also currently hold all the elected statewide and congressional seats. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 election. Although the state is a Republican stronghold, there is also a robust progressive contingent in the state.

Sen. Bernie Sanders won the 2016 Idaho Democratic Party caucus with 78% of the vote, receiving 20 of Idaho’s 27 Democratic delegates. Sanders had a fairly active campaign in Idaho. He held rallies in several areas of the state, including a speech on the Boise State University campus that drew over 7,000 people. Many of the county party-organized caucuses experienced record turnout. The line for the Ada County caucus in downtown Boise stretched for several blocks with over 9,000 people participating in the caucus. Some believe this was the largest single-site caucus ever, and the large turnout delayed the start of the caucus for several hours, making it difficult for some people to remain long enough to cast their vote.

A line of people waiting to participate in the Idaho Democratic caucus stretches around the Boise Centre in Boise, Idaho. Photo credit: Kyle Green, Idaho Statesman

Concerns about the caucuses limiting voter participation and the significant party resources required to organize it motivated a switch to a state-run primary election for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination contest.

This switch is likely to increase participation since primary elections are more accessible than caucuses, making it easier for more citizens to participate. Moreover, the primary is a week after Super Tuesday, so Democratic Party leaders are preparing for a high turnout on March 10. After the primary election, the Idaho Democratic Party will still hold county caucuses to select delegates for the state party convention.

The Idaho Democratic Party Presidential Primary is semi-closed, so registered Democrats and “unaffiliated” voters can vote in the election.

Sanders’ progressive proposals remain popular among the left and Democrats in Idaho, contributing to Paulette Jordan’s election as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2018 over the more moderate, establishment candidate. Jordan shared many of Sanders’ progressive proposals on issues like health care and education. Although we lack much opinion polling, Sanders continues to be popular in Idaho and is likely to experience primary success again in 2020. The Idaho Democratic Party Presidential Primary is semi-closed, so registered Democrats and “unaffiliated” voters can vote in the election. This may help Sanders pick up votes from left-leaning independents. However, it will be interesting to see the extent of his success this year given the larger field of candidates in the Democratic presidential primary, especially if other candidates establish a presence in the state like Bloomberg has done. While Bloomberg’s campaign offices are unlikely to result in a primary victory in Idaho, the campaign infrastructure and activities may help increase Democratic turnout in both the primary and general elections.

In addition to the large number of conservative Republican voters in Idaho, there is a significant libertarian constituency in Idaho.

Tensions between the conservative and libertarian factions within the Idaho Republican Party have caused internal divisions and disagreements in the past. Sen. Ted Cruz won the 2016 Idaho Republican Party presidential primary with 45.4% of the vote, while Donald Trump received 28.1% of the vote. President Trump is popular in Idaho and will easily win the 2020 Idaho Republican presidential primary, which is a closed primary restricted to registered Republican voters. He is very likely to win in the general election in Idaho as well.

Idaho tends to have fairly high turnout in elections, especially general elections. In the 2016 election, turnout was almost 76% of registered voters. Despite frequently high turnout among registered voters, registered voters account for about 52% of the state’s population. Idaho does have Election Day voter registration, which may help increase voter turnout if the Democratic Party presidential primary is still competitive in March. To also help increase voter registration in the state, various organizations have been holding voter registration drives.

One attempt to increase registration among younger Idahoans is the AAUW Boise Area Branch’s What the Vote! effort. As part of this registration initiative, AAUW members have visited area high schools and the Boise State University campus to register students. This registration effort has registered over 5,000 high school and college students in the past several years.

Volunteers spend time in high school government classes and on college campuses to inspire young voters to engage in democracy. https://boise-id.aauw.net/special-projects/

Although the Idaho presidential primaries are still unlikely to garner a great deal of national attention, recent election reforms may help the Idaho Democratic Party Primary on March 10 matter more than in most years. Moreover, it might help attract a few more candidates to the state, helping increase interest and turnout.


Jaclyn J. Kettler, assistant professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University, is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.

Jaclyn J. Kettler earned her BA at Baker University and her PhD at Rice University. Her research focuses on American politics with an emphasis on state politics, campaign finance, political parties & interest groups, and women in politics.