The urban-rural divide in Baker County; and eating crow on Dudley
There’s a common lament heard around here which has it that those infernal city voters, on account of their superior numbers, run roughshod over us in the hinterlands like a schoolyard bully.
Take last week’s election.
(Or leave it, if you’d rather.)
Almost three in four Baker County voters wanted Republican Chris Dudley to be Oregon’s next governor.
Yet it’s Democrat John Kitzhaber who will be hauling his luggage to Mahonia Hall, and the reason is that a slightly higher percentage of Multnomah County voters said it should be.
And there’s 417,000 of them as against 10,000 of us.
But what if “those city voters” in this case live not in Portland, nor even in the smaller but still substantial urban centers of Eugene, Salem or Bend?
What if they live in Baker City?
What if Baker City were that urban liberal bastion jutting arrogantly from a conservative rural sea?
Well it is.
All right, barely.But even though Baker City isn’t to Baker County what Multnomah County is to Oregon, there is a slight political resemblance between those two relationships, one which strikes me as passing strange.
I have, by way of explanation, been puttering around in Baker County’s voting precinct records.
It’s an enjoyable way to pass half an hour, if you’re of a mind, and have a calculator handy.
Now Baker City can’t reasonably be described as a metropolitan area, of course.
But a solid majority — almost 60 percent — of Baker County’s residents live within its city limits. That’s a higher percentage than any of our neighbors.
La Grande, for instance, harbors 51 percent of Union County’s residents.
Ontario has 36 percent of Malheur County’s total, and Pendleton just 24 percent of Umatilla County’s.
And it turns out that, at least by one measure, Baker County’s city dwellers, just as that old saw about urban liberals insists, are more liberal than their rural counterparts.
Although perhaps “less conservative” is the better way to put it.
Among the 5,729 registered voters who live within the Baker City limits, 41.9 percent are registered Republicans, and 30.5 percent Democrats.
Another 22.7 percent of voters are not affiliated with any party (that doesn’t included registered independents, who make up 3.1 percent of the voter rolls).
Move outside the city, though, and the GOP enjoys not merely a plurality, but a slight majority.
Of the 4,381 Baker County voters who live outside Baker City, 50.9 percent are registered Republicans — fully 9 percent higher than for city voters.
Registered Democrats total 25.4 percent of non-Baker City voters — a 5.1 percent deficit.
Voter registration isn’t a foolproof way to gauge the political preferences of a populace, of course.
In the 2008 presidential election, for instance, Baker County voters went for Republican John McCain in a relatively big way — 64 percent.
Yet among all county voters, just 46 percent are registered Republicans.
But Democrat Barack Obama also fared better than a pundit might have predicted who looked only at how Obama’s party is represented among county voters.
Registered Democrats account for 28 percent of all Baker County voters. But Obama polled 32 percent here.
How many affiliated voters crossed party lines in that election I can’t say.
But it seems clear, considering McCain’s trouncing of Obama, that the county’s 2,100 non-affiliated voters leaned Republican.
It’s also obvious that, were the parts of Baker County outside Baker City incorporated into a single political entity, that McCain would have carried that place in an even greater landslide.
And you needn’t travel far outside Baker City to see why this is so.
The “Baker Country” precinct, No. 13, basically surrounds the city in a circle extending several miles.
Of the 731 registered voters in precinct 13, 60 percent are registered Republicans — 18.1 percent higher than for Baker City.
Democrats amount to 20 percent, or one-third less than for the city precincts.
But precinct 13 is not the apex of Republican domination in Baker County.
In the Hereford precinct, 68 of the 97 voters are registered Republicans — 70 percent.
Keating precinct lags behind, but barely — 69.6 percent of its 168 voters are aligned with thee GOP.
Baker County’s real political outliers, though, lie elsewhere.
The Huntington and Pine Valley precincts, to be specific.
Huntington, in the county’s southeastern corner, is our lone Democratic enclave.
Of the precinct’s 293 voters, 124 are registered Democrats — 42 percent. Republicans number 64, slightly less than 22 percent, and behind non-affiliated voters, of whom there are 81 (28 percent).
Pine Valley, which includes Halfway, is an anomaly of a different sort. That precinct is Baker County’s most balanced.
Republicans have a plurality but only a slight one — 36.7 percent of the 678 voters, as against 34.2 percent Democrats and 23.3 percent non-affiliated.
Pine Valley has a reputation, or so I’ve been told, as a haven for unconventional thinkers.
I don’t know how to judge the validity of this claim. But registration rolls suggest at least that the precinct’s voters don’t cotton to political conformity.
There are, for instance, five people in the precinct registered with the Pacific Green Party (PGP), which has a particular interest in protecting the environment.
Pine Valley’s five PGP voters constitute 25 percent of Baker County’s total of 20.
No other precinct has more than four (and that precinct, in North Baker City, has 1,065 total voters to Pine Valley’s 678).
Perhaps there’s some illustrative political truth concealed in all these statistics.
The numbers are interesting in any case.
Certainly they don’t challenge the simplistic notion that Baker County, in common with Eastern Oregon, is a conservative region where candidates who have that capital “R” beside their name own an automatic, and significant, advantage.
Yet, just as Republicans have discovered over the years, that edge is apt to shrink once you cross the boundaries of the big city.
Even if that big city is in reality a small town.
I have not, however, been able to procure one of the birds so that I might complete my penance.
I was all wrong about Chris Dudley.
Well, sort of.
I predicted back in May, after the primary, that Dudley would fail in his bid to become Oregon governor.
I was right about that part.
But my take on whether Dudley’s campaign against John Kitzhaber would be competitive was positively Deweyesque.
Here’s what I wrote in May:
I just can’t silence the interior voice which insists that Dudley, who couldn’t poll a majority from among his own party in the primary, has little chance to pull the monumental upset over Kitzhaber.
Turns out my interior voice needs to shut its trap, at least when it gets to yapping about politics.
Dudley, of course, did not pull off that upset.
But he came awfully close.
Close enough that describing it as “monumental” seems, in retrospect, sort of silly.