Nestled in the center of Idaho lies Blaine County: an oddly-shaped shaped area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island, with a panhandle extending to the south – a remnant of gerrymandering in the 1880’s. More notable than its shape, however, is its voting history. Though the state of Idaho has supported a Republican president in every election since 1968, Blaine County has voted contrary to this trend since 1992. In the 2016 election, its nearly 60% vote for Clinton starkly contrasted that of the surrounding counties, which hovered around 70% support for Trump. In a state where the counties containing the most populous cities vote consistently conservative, a county at its heart pumping blue blood stands out sharply. Michael Leach, the Republican County Chair for Blaine, echoed this thought over the phone. He recognized the “real dichotomy” between his county and the rest of the state, and described the blue county as “bizarre” and a “fluke.”
An explanation for this “bizarre” trend may lie in a key feature of Blaine County that makes it a destination for many vacationers: it contains Sun Valley, a well-known ski resort that has attracted a number of high-profile names, from Ernest Hemingway to Demi Moore. When asked over the phone, Dave Lister, the Democratic Party Precinct Captain for Sun Valley, said he believes this is absolutely the reason for such a stark contrast. Indeed, other counties with renowned ski resorts have followed this same trend, such as Jackson Hole’s Teton County and Park City’s Summit County. However, as Bill Roberts pointed out in a local news article that attempted to analyze this ski resort phenomenon, “the correlation is easier to demonstrate than to explain.”
Mr. Lister reasoned that the ski resort tends to attract people with higher levels of affluence and education, many of whom tend to vote liberally. This explanation, however, has a few holes. Skiers are more likely to be white, male, and more wealthy than the average American citizen, with 72% of alpine skiers identifying as Caucasian/white (non-Hispanic). Per the results of the 2016 election, this does not represent the typical demographic of Clinton voters, nor that of Democrats in general. Also, many who frequent ski resorts tend to do so for vacation or as a part-time residency; very few would be able or inclined to vote there. Furthermore, Northern Idaho’s Bonner county, which contains Schweitzer ski resort, voted nearly 64% for Trump in the 2016 election, defying the trend seen in Blaine County and other similar voting blocs. Mr. Leach believed that the election pattern was more due to the movement of people, from California to the area, motivated by a desire to escape high taxes and live in a beautiful place. He described Blaine County’s “great lifestyle” as a major incentive (particularly for retirees), with many attractions like the opera and the ski resort that make it a place that is “good for grandchildren.”
The answer to the Blaine county enigma seems to lie somewhere in-between the two testimonies. As Mr. Lister pointed out, though the area was originally put on the map by Sun Valley ski resort, it now hosts many other attractions that make it a pleasurable place to live and retire (something Mr. Leach also attested to). A USA Today article comparing ski resorts in Idaho described it as “the complete ski-trip package,” with “a balance of world-class skiing, luxury accommodations, the quintessential ski-town tourist environment,” and “no shortage of outdoor activities in the summer or winter.” To these attractions come people–generally from Washington, Oregon, and California–with different political views. Unlike Sun Valley, the Schweitzer resort was described as the most affordable major ski resort in Idaho, prized more for its slope quality than for a luxurious surrounding area. Perhaps this explains Schweitzer’s break from the blue voting trend among ski resort areas.
Though both men have the same fundamental perception of their area, the language they used to describe the situation was very polar. When asked if there was any tension between either North (where Sun Valley is) and South (much more rural) Blaine or the county and the rest of Idaho, both men emphatically said yes. Mr. Leach discussed the existence of many conservative people like him in Blaine county; though reflective of the state as a whole, they are very different from the wealthy, California natives living in and around Sun Valley. Though Mr. Lister himself is native to Idaho, he mentioned that he was one of those few and that people in the more conservative surroundings are “convinced” that everyone in Sun Valley is a Californian, and a not “real” Idahoan.
“Instead, Blaine county presents a democratic conundrum in which neither side feels it can win in the present state of politics, nor has the possibility of victory in the future.”
The testimonies of David Lister and Michael Leach create a narrative in which no political party in Blaine county feels like it is well-represented. Mr. Leach remarked woefully that although there are many Republicans in Blaine county, it is “just a numbers game” and they always lose, just as the people from large swaths of land in Washington State are drowned out by the multitude of democratic votes from Seattle. Mr. Lister felt a similar dejection toward the situation of his political party, remarking that the consistently red politics of the state make it “sad to be a Democrat in Idaho,” despite the heavy concentration of fellow Democrats within his voting district. He mentioned that he was hoping for an elimination of the electoral college and a switch to a system based on popular vote. Though on opposing sides, both men have a point. The Republican voters of Blaine County will, most likely, never see their county votes go to the conservative candidate. But the Blaine Democratic voters will, most likely, never see their county votes impact the electoral votes of the state. In many ways, Blaine county seems like the epitome of democracy, as constituents vote according to their beliefs despite the political affiliations of their neighbors. This set-up, when looked at from afar, seems as if it would provide a remarkable chance for persuasive dialogue between the two sides. Instead, Blaine county presents a democratic conundrum in which neither side feels it can win in the present state of politics, nor has the possibility of victory in the future.
As Katie Breckenridge, a ranch owner in Southern Blaine County wondered, “But we are all common people. There’s a common thread between us all. Why do we dwell on our differences? Why can’t we dwell on our similarities?” This insider-outsider dynamic is easily seen in the descriptive language used by locals, from Mr. Leach’s description of the “trust fund liberals” that populate the ski area to Ms. Breckenridge’s observation that they seem to “stare at us when we go into town…we’re not in a museum yet.” She noted that the “main difference [between those who populate each end of Blaine county] is origin;” though they are brought close together by the hub around Sun Valley, each group identifies more with its original home than its current location. As an Idaho Mountain Express article notes, “Blaine County’s sheer size contributes in large part to the separation between its agricultural and municipal groups.” Though all of its residents identify with the county, they feel much more connected to their local communities – much like how U.S. citizens tend to identify more closely with their local environment and less with the federal state. If the residents of Blaine county lived in closer proximity, perhaps the greater frequency of interaction would force similar interests to be seen rather than just differences. The large size of Blaine County, however, permits its residents to reside in their own bubbles while only occasionally bumping into those surrounding them. This separation feeds into the two-party political system, as each side is given a “team” to root for. Thus, the political and ideological divide between the more urbanized North and the rural South of the county is a microcosm for what occurs across the large territorial expanse of the nation as a whole, as Mr. Leach alluded to when he described Washington state’s voting patterns. As many people in situations like Mr. Lister and Mr. Leach feel their voices aren’t being heard, the geographical lines separating these populations become increasingly defined.