Even with Democratic majorities, Baker went GOP

By Jayson Jacoby February 14, 2014 08:20 am

Remember when Baker County was described as “overwhelmingly Democratic” and “predominantly a Democratic county?”

Such a notion might sound farfetched, if not outright farcical, today, when the county is a Republican mainstay.

It turns out, though, that you needn’t go back so far as the Whig era to reach a period when Democrats boasted an electoral advantage among county voters at least as solid as what GOP candidates have now.

In November 1972, the day after President Richard M. Nixon was re-elected, this newspaper wrote that although Nixon, a Republican, received 55 percent of Baker County’s votes to Democrat George McGovern’s 33 percent, this was, and indeed it remained, “predominantly a Democratic county” based on party affiliations.

Eight years earlier, when Democrat Lyndon Johnson garnered 59 percent of the county’s ballots to Barry Goldwater’s 41 percent, 61 percent of Baker County voters were registered as Democrats, and 38 percent as Republicans.

The GOP hasn’t managed to attain anything like that numerical superiority, despite the overwhelming popularity of the party’s candidates with local voters over the past 20 years or so.

Republicans have maintained a strong plurality among registered voters in Baker County but they have yet to amass a majority — the GOP registration rate has ranged from about 45 percent to 49 percent over the past decade.

The Democrats’ position, meanwhile, has steadily weakened over the past 15 years.

At the end of 2013, just 2,472 of the county’s voters — 24.7 percent — were registered Democrats.

That’s both the fewest registered Democrats, and the party’s lowest percentage of the county’s electorate, in more than 40 years.

There are almost as many non-affiliated voters in the county — 2,223 — as there are registered Democrats.

The Herald and its sister paper, The Observer in La Grande, are planning to publish a series of stories later this year that will delve deeper into the statistics for Baker as well as Union and Wallowa counties. We hope our reporting will help to explain why Republican candidates have been trouncing Democrats in most elections in the region over the past couple decades.

But I’m also eager to compare the GOP domination in elections with the voter registration trends. Even a cursory look at the statistics shows a considerable time lag between those two measurements, at least in Baker County.

Voters here have gone with the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1968, when Nixon polled 52 percent in the county to Hubert Humphrey’s 40 percent.

(Former Alabama governor George Wallace, by the way, got 8 percent in Baker County.)

That’s 12 consecutive presidential elections in which Baker County residents preferred the GOP candidate.

Yet Republicans didn’t overtake Democrats in numbers of registered voters in the county until the 1996 election.

As recently as 1992, when George H.W. Bush received 39 percent of Baker County’s votes compared with Bill Clinton’s 32 percent and Ross Perot’s 29 percent, Democrats still held an advantage in registration.

In the 1992 general election there were 4,110 registered Democrats, 46.3 percent of the total voters.

Republicans totaled 3,709, or 41.8 percent.

Four years later the GOP was in the ascendant, with 4,377 registered voters — 43 percent — compared with 3,880 Democrats — 38 percent.

The simplistic answer to this time discrepancy is that Baker County voters are mainly a conservative lot, and they realized more than a generation ago that in general Republican candidates are more conservative than Democrats.

But local voters weren’t in any hurry to change their party affiliation to reflect that preference.

This isn’t exactly shocking, of course.

Your vote is more important, certainly, than your party affiliation.

Still and all, it seems to me passing strange that barely two decades ago Democrats, who today possess token political influence around here, actually outnumbered Republicans on voter registration rolls.

I suspect Ronald Reagan had quite a lot to do with things.

As perhaps the most significant Republican politician of the second half of the 20th century, Reagan’s influence can hardly be understated.

In the 1976 presidential election, Republican Gerald Ford, the incumbent who replaced Nixon when Nixon resigned in 1974, lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter. But Ford prevailed in Baker County, albeit by the minuscule margin of 31 votes.

Four years later, with the country mired in an economic and cultural malaise that many Americans attributed, with ample reason, to Carter’s ineffectual leadership, Reagan routed the incumbent.

Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. In Baker County the Gipper polled 59.3 percent to Carter’s 31.4 percent.

That was the best performance by a Republican presidential candidate in Baker County in more than a generation.

Not even Nixon in 1972, when he had yet to be tainted by Watergate and was running against McGovern, the unabashed anti-Vietnam War liberal, did better than Reagan.

No Democratic presidential candidate since Carter has come close to winning Baker County.

Even Republicans wouldn’t dispute that the Democrats have fielded more talented, and popular, candidates since Carter’s abysmal showing in 1980.

Yet neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama managed to do as well among Baker County voters as McGovern’s 33 percent polling in 1972.

I’m inclined to attribute this not to a lack of political acumen on the part of either Clinton or Obama.

It seems to me more likely that McGovern, who was a war hero but not a particularly charismatic politician, benefited by running in a year when Democrat voters, notwithstanding their increasing preference for Republican candidates, still outnumbered GOP voters.

Neither Obama nor Clinton had either of McGovern’s advantages. Their dismal showings in Baker County were predictable.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.