November 22, 2007 in Idaho

Obama eyes Idaho

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
Betsy Russell photo

Joey Bristol, Idaho field director for Obama, shows off some campaign gear at the Obama headquarters in Boise.
(Full-size photo)

A presidential caucus in Idaho

» Idaho’s Democratic caucus this year is Feb. 5, the earliest date ever. Known as “super-duper Tuesday,” 21 states will make their picks that day. Washington’s presidential primaries are Feb. 19, and its Democratic caucus is Feb. 9.

» Idaho’s primary election isn’t until May 27, but the Democratic Party in Idaho holds caucuses to select its presidential nominee. That makes the presidential primary election results, which count for Republicans, a meaningless “beauty contest” for Democrats.

» Here’s how Idaho’s Democratic caucuses work:

» “Anyone willing to pledge to support a particular Democratic candidate – and not to participate in any other party’s nominating process for that year’s presidential election – can participate. Seventeen-year-olds can participate if they’ll be 18 by the Nov. 4 general election.

» “Participants gather in a big room in each county and huddle into groups by the candidate they support, or they can choose “uncommitted.” Then, each group has a representative give a speech to try to persuade others to join. People switch groups, and then the votes are tallied up.

» “Idaho’s 23 delegates are divided proportionally based on the results; a candidate must get at least 15 percent of the support to secure a delegate.

» John Foster, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, said, “A caucus is the best example of living, breathing democracy you’ll ever see. It’s loud and boisterous and kinda messy, but a hell of a lot of fun.”

BOISE – Only one presidential candidate from either party has opened a campaign office in Idaho: Democrat Barack Obama.

With Idaho one of the most conservative states in the nation – its entire congressional delegation and all its statewide elected officials are Republicans – that may seem surprising. But this year, for the first time, Idaho has a Democratic presidential caucus on Feb. 5 – “super-duper Tuesday.” That timing could give the state a real voice in choosing the Democratic nominee for president.

“Super Tuesday” used to be a day in March when a group of states held presidential primaries or caucuses, with the largest in 2000 when 16 states had theirs on March 7. But state political parties have upped the ante this year, with the Iowa caucuses launching the presidential primary season Jan. 3, and so many states setting their decisions for Feb. 5 that it has been dubbed “super-duper Tuesday.”

“Everyone’s going to want to say they won something on Feb. 5,” said John Foster, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. “If no one comes out of the first four primaries with a commanding lead, Feb. 5 becomes incredibly important.”

Joey Bristol, a 29-year-old Chewelah native who’s Obama’s Idaho field director, said, “Obviously most of the campaign resources go into Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, in that order.” But after those four, the next contest is Feb. 5, when 21 states, including Idaho, will hold their Democratic presidential caucuses or primaries.

“The Obama campaign, more than any other campaign, has invested very heavily in the Feb. 5 states,” Bristol said.

But the campaign hasn’t opened offices in all of them. Idaho got a full Obama campaign office Nov. 1, with two full-time paid staffers and a flock of volunteers, because Obama supporters in the state already had organized and begun signing up hundreds of supporters.

“They were very active, and very active online too,” Bristol said.

Plus, Obama, the 46-year-old senator from Illinois, leads the field of Democratic candidates in Idaho fundraising. As of the last campaign finance reports, Obama had raised $48,175 from Idahoans – nearly twice the $28,585 Hillary Clinton had pulled in.

Bristol said the campaign already has signed up 2,200 Idaho supporters, or nearly half as many people as participated in Idaho’s last Democratic presidential caucus in 2004.

“Obama’s doing well in Idaho. I think that’s a surprise to some people, (but) not to others,” Bristol said. “It also helps that support for Hillary isn’t as strong here as it is in some other states.”

T.J. Thomson, an internal auditor for Idaho Power Corp. who helped organize the grassroots Idaho Obama effort last spring, said, “His message of hope really resonates with me. … He’s much more in line with the center.”

Thomson said he was drawn to Obama’s health care proposals and his opposition to the war in Iraq.

“There are just no other efforts by the other candidates really going on here in Idaho,” he said. “It’s the first time in I don’t know how long that Idaho actually matters. … We can have an actual impact.”

Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have been jockeying for the lead among Democratic candidates for president this year.

Bristol said his biggest challenge so far has been letting people know the race is on in Idaho. “People are in a general-election mind-set, not a primary mind-set,” he said. “People say, ‘Obama – that doesn’t make any sense.’ Even some of our big supporters say, ‘Oh, I’m an Obama fan, but what are you guys doing here?’ ”

If wins in the first four big primaries see-saw back and forth between candidates, Bristol said the Obama campaign could take the lead in the race by winning most of the Feb. 5 states, giving it a big push toward the nomination.

Or, if the Feb. 5 results show no clear winner, “Then every delegate matters and every state matters,” he said. In a close race between Clinton and Obama, even a few delegates from Idaho could make the difference in the nomination, Bristol said.

The candidate is not likely to visit Idaho in person, though. “Between fundraising and then the four early states, basically his time will be spent in other places,” Bristol said. That hasn’t slowed down Idaho’s Obama fans, who have snapped up Obama T-shirts and yard signs, and turned out for events like a “Generation Obama” happy hour.

“They’ve been banging their drums pretty loud for the last few months,” Foster said.

Bristol, a Princeton grad, speaks four languages, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria and has an entry-level State Department foreign service officer job waiting for him when he finishes his campaign work. He started off as an Obama campaign volunteer, he said, and found it more exciting than the job offers he was getting.

Since then, he has moved from New Jersey to Chicago to Colorado to Boise.

“We’ve had a few people who’ve stopped by and said, ‘I was leaning (toward) Edwards, but you guys are here.’ I think it does a lot just to have a representative from the campaign in Idaho,” Bristol said. “We think we can win.”

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