Re-examining county’s Republican reputation
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
Baker County’s political reputation is as a Republican stronghold, and the results from presidential and other races over the past few decades bear this out.
In the Nov. 6 election Mitt Romney polled 67.5 percent of the county’s votes, to President Barack Obama’s 28 percent.
But I’ve been sifting through voter registration records and election results — figuratively sifting, since the data are electronic, and available at the Oregon Elections Division’s website, www.oregonvotes.org — and it seems to me that the county’s commitment to the Grand Old Party perhaps isn’t as solid as it appears to be.
I was more than a little surprised to see that fewer than half the county’s 10,378 voters — 46.4 percent, to be precise — are registered Republicans.
If you figure that the vast majority of Republicans who returned their ballot went for Romney, which seems to me a reasonable assumption, then a goodly number of voters — approximately 1,800, if I haven’t botched the calculations — who are not registered Republicans also filled in the oval next to Romney’s name on the ballot.
The obvious question, then, is why so many voters who are inclined to the right (none are perfectly perpendicular, in a political sense, I think) don’t formally identify themselves as Republican standard-bearers.
The records show that these right-leaning voters aren’t affiliated, at least on the registration card, with any political party.
Almost 1 in 5 Baker County voters — 22 percent — are non-affiliated.
There are almost as many of these voters as there are registered Democrats, the latter accounting for 25.3 percent of the county’s electorate.
But none of these numbers, of course, answers that “why?” question.
A plausible explanation is that voters who decline to identify with a particular party aren’t satisfied with any of their choices.
Voters who don’t much like their options on the ballot are more likely to leave those ovals empty, and another set of statistics shows that Baker County’s non-affiliated voters were more apathetic on Nov. 6 than their party-loyal counterparts.
Among non-affiliated voters, 66.1 percent returned their ballots.
Registered Republicans, meanwhile, voted at an 88.7-percent rate, while 85.8 percent of registered Democrats turned in their ballots.
Voters registered as independent — I’m one of the 508 in that category — were more in line with major party voters, posting a ballot-return rate of 81.5 percent.
A possible clue in this mystery of why voters who eschew party affiliation are less committed voters involves a trend in voter registration over the past decade.
The biggest change in Baker County’s electorate since 2002 is the declining percentage of registered Democrats.
In 2002, Democrats accounted for 34.2 percent of the county’s voters.
That percentage dipped to 29.5 percent in 2008, and fell further, to 25.3 percent, for this year’s election.
The Republican share has risen during that period but by a much smaller percentage — from 44.7 percent in 2002 to the current 46.4 percent.
The percentage of non-affiliated voters, meanwhile, increased from 19 percent in 2002 to 22 percent today.
The likely conclusion, then, is that over the past decade some number of voters have switched from registering as Democrats to non-affiliated status.
And it stands to reason that those voters, having lately leaned Democratic, would not immediately migrate en masse to the Republican ticket.
Indeed, the comparatively low turnout among non-affiliated voters strongly suggests that many of those who switched to that small-i independent status (as opposed to formally registered, as I have, as an Independent) didn’t vote at all.
A couple of other statistics among the Elections Divisions’ binary reams that intrigued me have to do with measuring just how conservative Baker County is, and how liberal are some of the more populous counties west of the Cascades.
(I recognize that “conservative” and “liberal” aren’t precise synonyms for Republican and Democrat, but they’re close enough.)
It turns out that Baker County isn’t the most conservative enclave in rural Oregon.
And it’s not not nearly as partisan as is the state’s most thickly settled county, Multnomah.
Baker County is actually slightly less conservative than each of our neighbors, based on the percentage of voters registered as Republicans.
Baker County’s 46.4 percent rate of GOP affiliation trails Union County (47.9 percent); Grant County (51.7 percent); Malheur County (49.7 percent); and Wallowa County (52.1 percent).
Lake County, by the way, tops that list, with 55.9 percent of its voters registered Republicans.
Yet even Lake County’s electorate isn’t as unbalanced, so to speak, as Multnomah County’s.
Multnomah, which has 455,000 registered voters, 20 percent of Oregon’s total and 163,000 more than the runner-up (Washington County), isn’t so much heavily Democratic as it is lightly Republican.
Which is not to say Multnomah isn’t heavily Democratic — its percentage of voters who are registered Democrats is 52.8 percent, the highest among Oregon’s 36 counties.
The figure that stood out for me, though, is Multnomah County’s paltry Republican presence — just 15.5 percent of registered voters.
By comparison, the most devout Republican county — Lake — boasts a strong Democratic minority, with 21.9 percent of voters there registered Democrats.
Lane County, which has a reputation as a bastion of liberalism, isn’t necessarily deserving, at least compared with Multnomah. Lane County has a considerably higher percentage of registered Republicans (27.4 percent) and a lower percentage of Democrats (43.4 percent).
Nothing in the Elections Division records greatly challenges the conventional casting of Oregon as politically divided.
Areas west of the Cascades prefer Democratic candidates, although this preference is notably less enthusiastic in the largely rural areas outside the Portland, Salem and Eugene metropolitan areas.
East of the mountains is mainly a land of Republicans, although based on the breakdown of voters’ affiliations, I suspect the party’s eminence here is not so great as is commonly believed.
The interesting question for the future, it seems to me, is whether candidates who don’t have an “R” next to their name can earn the trust of voters who don’t either.