In the last year, Idaho Reports has covered five presidential candidate speeches and rallies, including Monday’s Bernie Sanders rally. We’re gearing up to report on Tuesday’s Democratic caucus, and we have a couple predictions. Here are our thoughts.
MELISSA: As we recover from our last candidate rally of the spring (unless Clinton shows up in Boise in the next couple hours) and head into caucus day for Idaho Democrats, I’ve been reflecting on the various campaigns and their presences in Idaho. It was easier to compare and contrast the Republican campaigns — there were four candidates, and two of them visited Idaho — but between the two Democrats left in the race, only Sanders made the trek to our state.
Not only that, but (speaking as a citizen and not a reporter) I got three calls from the Sanders campaign on my personal cell, while no one reached out to me from the Clinton campaign. I chatted with the third Sanders campaign volunteer for a while. He said that he’d been calling Idaho voters for almost two hours, and everyone either said they were Republicans, or they were caucusing for Sanders. At that point, he’d spoken to no Clinton fans. This is all anecdotal, of course, but still struck me as interesting.
Sen. Bernie Sanders enters the Taco Bell Arena for his March 21 rally. (Melissa Davlin/Idaho Public Television)
SETH: I didn’t get any phone calls. I’m feeling slightly left out.
An odd comparison struck me as Sanders walked on to the stage. It reminded me of the anti-Iran deal rally we witnessed in September while in D.C. Sanders occupied his own space in the Taco Bell arena. He didn’t react to the crowd; The crowd reacted to him. The last time I saw that was Trump walking onto stage in front of the U.S. Capitol; Cruz, the media and the crowd all bent to his movements at the time. Even Cruz yielded to his celebrity, at that point unaware he was Trump’s major competition. The same relationship was true for Sanders in Boise. Sanders demanded of the crowd, and the crowd demanded little of Sanders. While in Idaho, Cruz wanted love from the audience. He wanted them to vote for him. Rubio yearned for redemption in the east Idaho dessert, the stomping ground of one of his biggest donors, Frank Vandersloot. On Monday, Sanders put expectations on the crowd and they loved it. Clinton has never come to Idaho, and I’ve never been in front of her, so I can’t speak to her relationship with a crowd. The best corollary for Sanders in this campaign is Trump. Neither candidates apologize. They don’t pander. They don’t worry about nuance, and the audience respects it.
MELISSA: And as the national media has noted extensively, both pride themselves on distancing themselves from super PACs and big-money donors. We heard that message again and again from Sanders on campaign money, in what sounds like the same stump speech he’s been giving for a while. It’s interesting that you bring up both the candidates’ unapologetic tones. One of the biggest cheers Sanders got was for his sharp critique of social conservatism and what he called hypocrisy for Republicans’ attacks on gay marriage and abortion rights. As he began his comments, he said “I know this isn’t a popular topic in conservative Idaho but I’m going to say it anyway…” That in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it, to-hell-with-popular-opinion bravado is part of what makes Trump so attractive to voters, too. I’m sure Sanders would be thrilled with the comparison, as he spent part of his speech attacking the Republican front-runner.
SETH: The prelude to his attacks on Trump also spoke to the similarities between the two candidates. Sanders said “I’m not going to make attacks like some in the campaign,” but he spent a significant amount of time discussing marginalized groups his campaign does listen to — American Indians, women, those living in Flint, Michigan, and those living in poverty — bookending that discussion with jabs at the media and the establishment for not always hearing these concerns. He then attacked Clinton for a speech she reportedly gave to Wall Street donors. Sanders claimed she received $275,000 for talking to the very Wall Street executives he blamed for destroying the economy and creating income inequality. Then he proceeded to attack Trump. All these claims may be completely legitimate, that Trump is dividing the country and playing to our worst impulses, that Clinton is too cozy with Wall Street, and that we as media are not holding up our bargain as the fourth estate. I’m not making judgement. It was simply the introduction to the attacks that made me draw the comparisons.
MELISSA: I counted three separate attacks on the media in his speech. Side note: He made those attacks in front of the largest media turnout for any of the presidential candidate visits in Idaho this election cycle. (The Trump/Cruz anti-Iran deal rally we covered in September drew more press, but that was in DC.) There were more than twice as many reporters and photogs at this rally than Cruz and Rubio’s Boise rallies combined. Despite that, Sanders accused the media of not covering income inequality, but nearly every journalist I knew at that rally has done extensive reporting on poverty and its effects on Idahoans. (I know I might come off as defensive, but when Sanders claims to thousands of cheering supporters that journalists are ignoring something we’ve all reported on… A girl’s gotta defend herself and her colleagues.) And, as Bill Dentzer and Luke Ramseth pointed out, Sanders declined to speak to local reporters while in Idaho. That said, I don’t think that will hurt him with caucus-goers.
SETH: Idaho is a unique place for Democrats. The state is geographically big. Community is largely based on religious groups that have been embraced by the Republican party, and Democrats are significant minority. Being a Democrat outside of Boise, Sun Valley, Moscow and some parts of Pocatello can be ideologically lonely. To feel alone in the wilderness and feel like the deck is stacked against you wouldn’t be conspiratorial, but rational. For Idaho Democrats, being a member of the establishment or the majority is a foreign concept. For the last two decades, Clinton has been the establishment, and in 2008, Idaho wasn’t a friendly to her. Obama took Idaho by force. He visited Boise as an outsider, and Boise treated him like a rock star. He rode the momentum to an overwhelming victory in the Democratic caucus, winning by more 18 points. Clinton seems to be making the same mistake in Idaho this time. In a state where Democrats are starved for like-minded peers, the mere presence of a Democratic candidate who takes the time to visit has huge impact.
This year, Sanders is following in Obama’s footsteps, and being an outsider himself who has been a minority even in his own party has a natural empathetic connection with Idaho’s disenfranchised minority. His appearances may have been all he needed to win the day, showing that he cared and that he was like them. Sanders did well in demographically similar Western counties. Look to the Idaho Reports bellwether of Elko County, Nevada. Sanders visited Elko on Feb. 19, and a day later, he won that county by more 13 points. A month later in Idaho, Sanders has the demographics on his side and he’s made the right moves. If I had to make a prediction I would say Idaho will be Feeling the Bern tonight.
MELISSA: Right. As we noted in our March 11 show, even though Clinton took the state of Nevada in the Feb. 20 Democratic caucus, Sanders won in Elko County. In recent election cycles, north Nevada is a good indicator of how Idaho votes. Elko County had almost identical results to south central Idaho counties in 2012 and 2008, and Elko County’s Republican caucus results were also pretty close to Idaho’s. When we visited the Elko County caucus in February, we saw a slight majority of participants favor Sanders, but still a solid base of support for Clinton. So I’m with you, Seth. I think Sanders is going to do well in Idaho tonight, though it will be close.
Of course, we’ve been wrong before — like in our prediction that Marco Rubio would perform well in Idaho. (But we’ve also been pretty darn right in other respects, like calling the Cruz victory in Idaho half an hour before national media called it. You win some, you lose some.) Idaho Reports will be at tonight’s Ada County caucus. Follow along on Twitter (@davlinnews and @IdahoReports), and be sure to watch Friday’s show for more.