Idaho is one of the most conservative states in the union. It’s a rare presidential election when the state doesn’t go red by at least 10 points. The last time a Democrat won the state was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson narrowly edged out Barry Goldwater by less than two points. While its four electoral college votes may not be enough to swing most elections, it is part of the GOP strategy of poling up smaller states in order to overwhelm the more populated blue states — a strategy that has seen the Republicans win two of the last five elections while receiving fewer total votes than the Democrats. That isn’t to say there aren’t swing counties in Idaho, however. One such is Latah County, located halfway up the state in the panhandle.
Latah County includes Moscow, home of the University of Idaho and New Saint Andrews College. At 25,000 people, it’s the third largest city in Northern Idaho and holds 60 percent of Latah County’s residents. It is also one of two counties in the state to go for the Democrats in 2016.
To be sure, it wasn’t that Hillary Clinton was particularly popular here — quite the opposite in fact. Bernie Sanders got more than 83 percent of the primary vote here, and Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump nearly 3-1. But Trump proved to be very unpopular here among the independent minded voters here, and Clinton snuck out a win with 44.6 percent to Trump’s 40. But the real story here is the more than fifteen percent of voters who went for a third-party instead of the two major candidates.
Eight different candidates managed to get votes in Latah, with Libertarian Gary Johnson getting the lion’s share at 6.6 percent. The unusually high number of third-party voters is indicative of Latah County’s rebellious streak when it comes to state politics.
A whopping 47 percent of voters here are unaffiliated, and another two percent are registered with third parties. That makes for a county where barely half of voters go with the two major parties, as opposed to the rest of the state where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2-1, and those registered unaffiliated or third-party make up less than a third. In fact, Democrats come in third place in every county in the state behind both the GOP and other options as a whole. Libertarianism is a popular choice for many, but the Constitution Party is also unusually strong in the state.
The University of Idaho has a major influence on the politics of the county as, like most colleges, liberal and progressive thought are more popular among young and educated people. But the heavy agricultural roots of the area onboth sides of the nearby Idaho-Washington border and the concerns about federal government involvement for land use and permissiveness when it comes to social issues make for some contentious debate. Much of the debate is between the students of other residents of the area, as is typical in college towns.
On the other hand, the New Saint Andrews College is also located in Moscow. A Christian school with an emphasis on a religious worldview and theological studies, the students here are prone to be a little more conservative than their cross-town brethren. While its fewer than 200 students are dwarfed by UI’s 10,000 or so, the campus’ status as a center for religious studies certainly has an influence on Moscow and surrounding areas.
Historically, Latah County has been a swing county. While it did gor for George W. Bush both times — though at a lower rate than the rest of the state — it also went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It’s also one of only two counties to have voted against a ban on marriage equality in 2006, which passed statewide by nearly 2-1.
But the trends in the county seem to indicate that it may be shifting rightward once more. From 2014 to 2016, Republicans increased their share of voters here by nearly 10 percent, compared with just over 7 percent for the Democrats. While this growth is still dwarfed statewide, it does show that Latah may once again shift red in 2020.