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Sounding Out Idaho Long Odds For Bear Baiting Law Nuclear Waste Measure Also Losing Support, Polls Show

The anti-bear baiting initiative could be dead and a nuclear waste measure appears to be losing support, according to an October poll of Idaho voters.

That’s a dramatic change of fortune for both measures, which only a month ago appeared to be cruising to victory.

The survey of 834 registered Idaho voters, who said they go to the polls faithfully, shows 48 percent oppose the bear initiative and 34 percent support it. Eighteen percent are undecided.

The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

The initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot outlaws the use of baits and hounds to hunt black bears. It also would ban hunting of bears in the spring, when sows are nurturing cubs.

Given the lopsided numbers, the funeral dirge for the bear initiative can begin, pollsters predicted.

“Once the percentage of those opposed exceeds the percentage of those who favor it, it’s dead,” said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research.

The poll of likely voters was conducted last week for The Idaho Spokesman-Review and KTVB-TV in Boise. Similar polls were conducted a month earlier.

Last month, polling results on the bear initiative were almost the opposite, with 43 percent of likely voters saying they would vote yes and 35 percent saying they would vote no. Support has declined most dramatically among women - from 46 percent to 35 percent. A large segment of women - 23 percent - are undecided today.

That doesn’t bode well for initiative backers, Coker said. “Undecided voters break eight or nine to one against initiatives,” he said. “They tend to vote for the status quo.”

He isn’t surprised at the apparent erosion of support for the bear-baiting measure. “It’s not difficult to sink one of these quickly, especially if you have something to hammer on,” Coker said.

“You can have a ballot initiative that changes four things. If three of four are wildly popular and there are little questions about the fourth, then it will go down,” he said. “So if opponents can plant doubt over even one point, that tends to turn it around.”

The Sportsmen’s Heritage Defense Fund appears to have found just the point, said John Freemuth, a Boise State University political scientist who focuses on natural resource issues. The group is using radio ads to portray the measure as the work of out-of-state extremists, Freemuth said.

“I don’t think (the message) is factually correct, but facts don’t tend to matter in these initiatives,” Freemuth said. “Emotions tend to carry the day, fair or foul.”

He is not surprised that the bear-baiting initiative’s support is slipping.

“Hunting is what you might call a sacred policy in this state,” Freemuth said.

And initiative proponents aren’t making the same big advertising push, he said, so their message is probably lost.

Support for the nuclear waste initiative also appears to be waning. The measure calls for the state Legislature and voters to approve any additional shipments of radioactive waste into Idaho.

It kills Gov. Phil Batt’s deal with the federal government to accept additional shipments in return for money and guarantees the waste will be gone in 40 years.

The latest polling numbers show a reversal of fortune here also. The Oct. 10 poll found 43 percent of voters supporting the measure, with 42 percent against.

In September, 52 percent of voters sampled were backing the measure.

“I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but maybe has one foot in the grave,” said Coker of Mason-Dixon. The decline in yes voters shows support was probably soft all along, he said.

The fact that Idaho fields so many ballot initiatives also makes it more difficult to get voters to approve them. “Voters are getting adapted, understanding they play a big role and if there’s any doubt in their mind, they vote against it,” Coker said.

“Their attitude is, fix it and bring it back again when it’s perfect.”

BSU’s Freemuth is more surprised by the turnabout on the nuclear waste initiative. “My simplest answer is nobody wants the waste,” he said. “Perhaps people are actually sitting up and paying attention to the complexity of the issue.”

The dead heat likely will encourage Batt to campaign against the initiative, Freemuth said.

Nuclear waste has become the central issue in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Larry Craig and Democratic challenger Walt Minnick. With the vote so close, “it shows the Idaho electorate is so evenly split that it may not be enough to carry Walt Minnick,” Freemuth said.

Then why the recent spate of negative nuclear waste ads by both candidates? For Craig, it may be a way to widen his lead.

“A lot of negative ads tend to suppress the turnout of undecided voters,” Freemuth said. Focusing on keeping them home might be a strategy to send Minnick home for good.

If Minnick only lost 48 percent to 52 percent, he looks like a pretty good candidate to run against Dirk Kempthorne in two years, Freemuth said. “But if it’s 65 percent Craig to 35 percent Minnick, then (Minnick) says I don’t ever want to go through that again.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Bear baiting restrictions unlikely