Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How have voting trends changed?

Blaine County mirrors resort-town political trends

Express Staff Writer

Click to enlarge. Graph data source: Idaho Secretary of State

Demographics in mountain towns are changing, and among them are changes in voting trends.

As a whole, resort communities are becoming more liberal, according to statistics compiled by the Jackson, Wyo.,-based Charture Institute. From 1960 through 1988, voters in nine resort communities cast ballots predominately in favor of Republicans in presidential elections. From 1992 through 2004, that trend reversed, and voters began selecting Democrats.

Certainly individual candidates can have dramatic effects on such trends. Former Republican President Ronald Reagan, observed Blaine County Republicans Chairman Maurice Charlat, "could have been elected anywhere."

However, said Idaho Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, people are more likely to vote along party lines on larger political stages, and certain trends may afford a certain degree of insight.

"Party affiliation matters more when you don't know someone," Stennett said.

The numbers in Blaine County mirror those in the Charture Institute's presidential election statistics. Between 1988 and 1992, voters made the same switch and began favoring Democrats in presidential election years.

But what is really happening in places like Blaine County, where the socioeconomic demographics are changing with a high cost of living and a negative growth rate among its 20- and 30-something residents?

"There's certainly a new group of people in town, and they're spending time here and spending money here," Stennett said. "But I don't know that it's trickled into the political fabric of the community yet."

Stennett said one change that may eventually be reflected in Blaine County's politics is that so many people, particularly those who moved to the area recently, earned nest eggs through interest and dividends, not through ownership of a small, local business or through local employment.

"That means there's a lack of cultural connection," Stennett said. "Cultural connection doesn't mean going to the symphony. It's being involved in the community. They've lost any connection with making a living in town, living in the community and making a community work. That's kind of the first thing a community does is ask, 'What are we going to do here?'

"In the old days it was, 'How are we going to make a living here?' Now these people don't have to ask that question. There's not going to be any effort to see the community grow. There's very little interest in serving on boards and commissions and doing the hard work and bringing more people into the community."

Posed with the question of whether it was likely that Blaine County was becoming more conservative, Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen, a Democrat, said no.

"As opposed to necessarily becoming more Republican here, I think the Republicans and conservatives are becoming more vocal," he said. "But I think it's pretty independent. People want their leaders to be fair, practical and independent."

And that is a decidedly Idaho characteristic, Stennett said.

"Idaho Democrats are likely different from Democrats in other places," he said. "They may still vote for the Democratic candidate for president because they'll never meet the president, but when they get the chance to meet Idaho Democrats locally, they'll say 'These guys are like Republicans where I came from.'

"In Idaho we've got an anti-government segment. When you say all government's bad, that's got an audience here. And then you've got the religious right."

For his part, Schoen said if he's perceived as a conservative Democrat, "so be it."

"If I'm a centrist and I had a choice of being Republican or Democrat, I'd choose Democrat," he said "But I do think that Idaho people are independent-minded enough to take a good look at a candidate."

Charlat observed that, beyond sheer numbers, it's difficult to pin things down with certainty.

"I try to avoid the cliché, and the cliché is the rich, guilt-ridden Democrat as one approach to life and the Republican farmer as another view of life," he said. "Essentially what you're looking at if you pull yourself up to 100,000 feet and look down, you have a Republican influence at that level throughout the state. There are some pockets in the overview in Idaho that vote Democratic, and certainly the one we know about best is this one."

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