Idaho's Democratic caucuses are scheduled for February 5—that's one of the earliest caucuses in the nation. On that date, Democrats will designate 23 delegates for various candidates based on the number of supporters who show up to caucus. Even though all 23 of Idaho's delegates will represent a mere 1 percent of all the delegates at the national convention, Idaho's early caucus will be watched nationally. Gem State Dems agree that strong support for any one candidate will send the message that even in red-dominated Idaho, Democrats can get behind a blue candidate.
"It was Harry Truman the last time Idaho went for a Democrat in the general election," says T.J. Thomson, a Barack Obama supporter and District 20 chairperson for Ada County Democrats. "So the eye isn't on the general election—it's completely on the caucus. If Obama can get a victory in South Carolina, Iowa and maybe even in Nevada, then he'll have some momentum. If he clenches a state like Idaho, it'll show that he has broad-based appeal."
But in order to make a strong statement at the national level, Idaho's 23 delegates will need to demonstrate some level of harmony for their presidential pick. And securing support for any one candidate won't be easy. A look at the latest polls reveals that candidate support among Democrats in Idaho is divided. If Al Gore were in the running, he'd be the top Democratic pick, shows a poll conducted by Greg Smith and Associates. Without Gore in the race, Barack Obama leads over Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points. Edwards trails in third at 15 percent, while the other presidential hopefuls combined have just 10 percent of voter support.
But the pollsters say those figures represent mostly name recognition at this point, and supporters say that it's still too early to tell. Sharon Van Slyke, a Clinton fan and longtime Democratic volunteer, says that things won't really get fired up until after Labor Day. "That's sort of the unofficial start of campaign season," says Van Slyke.
Although Clinton ranks second in the polls right now, her supporters in Idaho haven't really pulled together to start campaigning yet. But there are plenty of Democrats like Van Slyke scattered around the state. Van Slyke says she wears her Clinton lapel pin wherever she goes. But even she will admit that some Idahoans dislike Clinton. If she wins the nomination, it could polarize local and statewide races in Idaho.
"I'm not at all sure that she's going to be the great white princess that saves Idaho," says Van Slyke.
Some active Democrats say that if Clinton were to be the nominee, it could drive more steadfast Republicans to the polls and hurt local races.
"People don't tend to like her as much around here," says Thomson, although he says he will support Clinton if she is nominated. "I think it would tend to pull out more of the Republican base."
Others say a Western nominee like Gov. Bill Richardson from New Mexico could help with Democratic races throughout the West. W. Lane Startin, from Twin Falls, is the volunteer grassroots director for Richardson's campaign. "We would have states in the West that will come into play if he is the candidate," says Startin. "Idaho I don't see going blue ... but I do think Richardson could run with a Western strategy out here."
Startin is one of a handful of dedicated volunteers who are drawn to Richardson because they say he is in tune with the West. Startin likes Richardson's pro-gun, libertarian-leaning, alternative energy-promoting stances. "I think it's obvious from his platform strategies, from just being out here—he knows what's going on," he says.
A Richardson nomination would bring Western issues to the forefront. "What it would mean for Idaho is that a lot of the issues that aren't normally on the table at a national state will finally be highlighted," Startin says.
But if Richardson is a winning candidate for the West, why hasn't he gathered more support in Idaho? He ranks low in state polls. Some Idaho Dems say it's not Richardson's stances on issues but rather his lack of charisma that makes him fade into the background. And on the charisma front, Obama seems to have him beat.
"You take a young, articulate candidate and you're going to attract a different support base," says Dawna Rasmussen Burket. Burket served as the lead state director for John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004. "These young supporters are very excited about his candidacy are being very vocal about it."
In the past few months, more than 300 volunteers in Idaho have pledged their support to Obama via the volunteer group Idahoans for Obama. The last time the group sponsored an event, supporters were spilling out the door. And a lot of those Obama fans are not your usual Democrat Party volunteers.
But Thomson, one of the lead organizers of Idahoans for Obama, says that if Obama gets elected, he'll bring more than youth and charm to the White House.
"This country is so divided, and Idaho is as well," says Thomson. "We need someone like him in Idaho that can bring both parties together, bring that message of hope."
Obama's campaign is taking Idaho's support seriously. Last weekend, it conducted a campaign training called Camp Obama, an intense two-day grassroots volunteer workshop. While the Obama campaign would like to win the majority of Idaho's caucus delegates, says Thomson, it is also looking at how Idaho Dems could help in Nevada, another early caucus state.
"If they can further develop this group of volunteers who are already dedicated to Obama, then we can send bus loads of people to Elko to help in that state. They realize that we can help them in Nevada and then also keep working here in Idaho."
In 2004, it wasn't so easy to draw new faces into the campaign, says Rasmussen, even though Kerry won overwhelmingly in Idaho at the Democratic Caucus. "The exciting thing in 2008 is how plugged-in Democratic activists seem early," says Burket. "In 2004, while some people were starting to pay attention early, I had to create a lot of the buzz."
But while Idaho Democrats agree that this year's early caucus will make our red state play a bigger role in the land of blue, it will take a great deal of work before there is consensus among caucus-goers. "With the caucuses moving up, you can't rely on any historic data on what's going to happen," says Van Slyke. "I think it's going to be a very different campaign. There's so much unknown out there."
And even though support is split at this point, most Democrats say that they'll cheer on whichever candidate gets the nomination even if it's not their personal pick. "I'd love to see Hillary win it," says Van Slyke. "But they're all worthy candidates."
Is all this pre-caucus excitement is really worth the 1 percent vote that Idaho's delegates will cast at the national convention? The flurry of energy and discussion helps draw in new activists, they say, and in this Republican land, Democrats will take any chance they can to energize supporters. The 2008 nomination may be a small opportunity for the Dems, but in Idaho, they say, that will have to do.