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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Few presidential candidates have Idaho primary plans, but party leaders expect record participation

Troy Drake votes with two of his children during the primary election at Boise Bible College in Garden City, Idaho, on March 8, 2016. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

Idaho’s presidential primary this year will come in the heart of the nationwide battle for the parties’ nominations, but it’s shaping up to be a quiet contest as candidates focus on earlier primaries and bigger states.

Both parties at the state and local level have high hopes for participation in the Idaho primary on March 10. That’s only a week after Super Tuesday and the same day that Washington, Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi hold primaries.

Party officials attribute their hopes for high turnout to the use of primaries instead of caucuses to select delegates. Democrats used a caucus system in 2016. Republicans used caucuses in 2012.

Only voters who affiliate with the Republican Party can participate in the GOP primary, but both unaffiliated and Democratic voters can participate in the Democratic primary. The Constitution Party, which also will have several candidates on the ballot, also has opened its primary to unaffiliated voters.

Jesse Maldonado, political director for the Idaho Democratic Party, said he expects many voters who did not participate in previous primaries will join in, because they will not be required to caucus. He said many voters also are excited about their candidates or want to be involved in choosing a candidate that can defeat President Donald Trump.

In the caucus system, voters must show up to a meeting in a gym or other community location and advocate in person for their candidate. Caucuses can take hours, and some believe they can be dominated by ardent supporters of a single candidate and thus might not be a true representation of the greater population.

A primary, on the other hand, only requires voters to show up to a polling place, choose whether to affiliate with a party and vote in that party’s primary.

In Idaho, voters with valid ID can register to vote in person the day of the election and choose a party affiliation at the same time.

“I expect this probably to be the highest-turnout primary in Idaho Democratic Party history,” Maldonado said. “It’s an important election year, and a lot of people want to have a say in who we nominate to beat Donald Trump in November.”

State and local party leaders say conservative voters are just as likely to turn out for Trump’s reelection bid, even though he has little competition from within the party. Frank Terraferma, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, said the other Republicans on the ballot this November have elicited little attention, with most in the party saying they support Trump’s presidency.

“A lot of people are very excited about Donald Trump’s reelection,” he said. “There’s a lot of buzz, and people are eager to go out and vote in March for the president.”

While the state Republican Party has not officially voted to endorse Trump’s 2020 campaign, it did pass a resolution last summer in support of Trump’s presidency, an act Terraferma said “speaks for itself.”

Kootenai County Republicans are similarly as supportive of the president. Brent Regan, the county chairman, said the county party organization hadn’t officially endorsed the president, but he could not think of any members who would not throw their support behind him.

“We’re going to stand behind the president absolutely,” he said.

Other candidates on the Republican ballot are former congressman Joe Walsh, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, businessman Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, former investment banker Bob Ely and attorney Matthew John Matern. The Constitution Party field also features six candidates: Charles Kraut, J.R. Myers, Sheila “Samm” Tittle, Don Blankenship, Daniel Clyde Cummings and Don J. Grundmann.

While there is some activity among organizers and volunteers for the major candidates, Idaho hasn’t attracted massive campaign spending or attention from presidential campaigns.

Jackie Groves, chairwoman of the Ada County Democrats, said she had been contacted by volunteers or campaign employees for Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. She said she had not heard from any representatives of Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, Michael Bennet or Deval Patrick. On Friday, the number of Democrats running for president dropped from 12 to 11 when John Delaney ended his campaign.

She said it’s understandable that few Democrats would bother to spend time or resources in Idaho, because it’s not a big player nationally when it comes to the Democratic National Convention. She said she appreciates the candidates who don’t ignore the state.

Groves said she has noticed some voters who supported Sanders when he swept the Idaho caucuses in 2016 seem to be open to other candidates. She added that the tension that was apparent between supporters of Sanders and Hillary Clinton seems to have dispersed, which she views as a hopeful sign in unifying the party after the nominating process.

“I haven’t seen as much tension,” she said. “And since we’re not caucusing, there’s less opportunity for that.”

Shem Hanks, the chairman of the Kootenai County Democrats, said most of the campaigning he’s seen in North Idaho is by the Sanders and Bloomberg campaigns.

While there are no campaign employees in Idaho, there are several active volunteers and organizers who are working on Sanders’ behalf, including Cory Alexander, an organizer from Post Falls. She said some voters she knows who supported Sanders in 2016 did consider other candidates, but many are coming back to Sanders’ camp. She said the 2016 election, and the rhetoric and dialogue that followed, actively turned off some from politics at all, and they seem paralyzed when trying to choose a candidate.

“This is not scientific,” she said, “but I do believe that there is an element of trauma that many people are experiencing because the political culture between the Democrats and the Republicans has gotten so toxic, and that is very hard for people to cope with.”

Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and billionaire who has been criticized for spending $200 million on his campaign, has staff working on opening three offices in Idaho.

His campaign claims to be the only presidential campaign to have hired staff in the state. Other presidential campaigns have active volunteers in Idaho but do not appear to have opened offices.

Erin Hudson, the Idaho communications director for the Bloomberg campaign, said there’s still time for any candidate to make a name for themselves.

“It’s still anybody’s ballgame, and our goal right now is to introduce Mike (Bloomberg) to people,” Hudson said.

Both the Idaho Republicans and Democrats have caucused in the past. And before 2012, their presidential primaries were open to anyone, regardless of party affiliation.

Groves said abandoning caucuses could lead to the success of more moderate candidates in the primary.

Caucusing “doesn’t allow the quieter, shy people to express their feelings very well, but the primary will,” she said.

Unaffiliated voters who may not normally participate because they don’t caucus with the Democrats and can’t participate in the Republican primary without officially changing their affiliation, could increase participation and move Idaho’s Democratic primary in a more moderate direction as well.

“We may see a pull toward the center, as people vote for more moderate candidates who they won’t vote for in the fall,” Groves said.