The elections of 1992 were mostly good for Democrats around the country but overall excellent for Republicans in Idaho – in spite of a drastic drop in the GOP vote for president.
There’s a thought here worth unpacking during this campaign of 2016.
In the last half-century Idaho’s electoral votes for president not only haven’t been in doubt, but have been in landslide territory for Republicans nearly every cycle. If you consider the 1976 vote for Gerald Ford among the landslides (and at 59.9%, it’d be churlish not to), then only two elections in all those years stand out: To a lesser degree 1996, when Robert Dole won 52.2% (to 33.6% for Bill Clinton) and to a greater degree in 1992, when George H.W. Bush won Idaho with 42% (to Clinton’s 28.4%).
That 42% was the lowest percentage a Republican has gotten for president in Idaho – even though it was enough to win the state’s electoral votes – since 1936.
That also was the big year, of course, for independent Ross Perot, who caught the attention and support of a lot of Idahoans. Perot’s support, in Idaho at least, came mostly out of the Republican side, and drove down Bush’s percentage. (The same thing happened to a lesser degree four years later to Dole.)
To be clear here: The decline in Republican percentage in Idaho did not result in an uptick on the Democratic side. Clinton’s percentage in Idaho also was unusually low even for a Democrat. And Republicans did very well that year down the ballot, though the legislature and courthouses.
But Perot surely was not the only reason Bush’s numbers cratered in Idaho that year. It also had to do with the relative level of actual enthusiastic support. And the early 90s was a period when a kind of predecessor to today’s in-GOP insurgency was beginning to become active in Idaho, not to today’s extent but enough to shake up thinking and alignments among a lot of Republicans.
There was some subtlety to it. Idaho’s Republican establishment was solidly behind Bush; there was little visible Idaho activity in support of his in-party critics like Pat Buchanan. The Perot activism was genuinely grass roots; it seemed to grow in part from Republicans who were interested in sending a message to Bush, and to the Republican establishment.
If some of this is starting to sound a little familiar, there’s a reason: Those factors from back then may be a lot stronger now.
The dissatisfaction among Republicans with Bush (over the broken “no new taxes” pledge, for example) was real but low-level, not much surfacing. The dissatisfaction among a lot of Republicans this year with Donald Trump is much greater. In various ways he was all but ignored at the state Republican convention, an unheard-of slight, drastically different from past presidential elections.
A Dan Jones & Associates poll of Idaho voters released in the last few days shows Trump at 49% to 32% for Democrat Hillary Clinton. The Clinton number isn’t far from what you might expect, but the Trump number is unusually low for what you’d think a Republican nominee would pull.
Is there an opening for some third candidate (such as the Libertarian Party ticket, which has two unusually strong contenders running) to do what Perot did 24 years ago? We may see.