02/12/2008 09:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Idaho Awakening

Hailey, Idaho - Overflow voters fill the Blaine County Caucus site
Photo by Willy Cook, Courtesy Idaho Mountain Express

Ketchum, Idaho--Idaho isn't accustomed to this much positive attention. A week has passed since our very white, very conservative state went whole hog (ok, 80% hog) for Barack Obama. In the afterglow of a blowout Boise rally and landslide victories here, Obama's Idaho awakening is still being felt, if not entirely understood.

First, let's consider the record shattering voter turnout. The plot-heavy Billary-BamBam contest is rolling its dough with the curiosity factor--the "I was there" allure--nationwide, and in Idaho, the numbers are dizzying. For the first time in state history, all 44 counties held caucuses, some pieced together with a day's notice, and four times as many Idahoans showed up than in 2004. In distant Clark County, on the Wyoming, Montana frontier, six people voted, all of them for Barack Obama. Canyon County's caucus was 700 percent larger than its last. Boise's caucus filled the 10-year old Qwest Arena with its largest crowd ever as hundreds more voted on scrap paper outside. Anecdotes of nightmare traffic jams, voters walking miles through falling snow and counties running out of ballots were rife. It's as if someone touched down in our funny little Republican oligarchy and personally asked everyone to get involved in the democratic process.

Maybe Idaho's media-shy masses went all wobbly when the Hope-monger himself alighted on our turf, (even if he was just courting the coveted Basque vote). But as flushed and aflutter as we may have been, one rally does not produce the prairie-wide margins of victory Barack Obama took here. His 80% win here was a Super-Tuesday rout second only to Mitt Romney's 90% Utah crusade.

So why did Idahoans glom to Obama with such religious zeal?

The theories are as diverse as our state is not.

"It's the pent up frustration of living in a red state finally finding an outlet," said Jerry Brady, Obama's state co-chair and a fifth generation Idahoan who, despite his moderate, pro-gun, unity-advocating views, was successfully branded a wolf-snuggling, tax-freak liberal by Republican foes in a tight 2006 gubernatorial bid. Obama, Brady said, found in Idaho the "geothermal energy of politics, untapped but powerful once harnessed."

Idaho Democratic Party spokesman Chuck Oxley phrased it differently: "This is the political equivalent of throwing up in your mouth a little bit," Oxley said in the grizzled parlance of a veteran in the long fight against one-party rule. In 2004, Idaho gave George Bush Jr. 68 percent, his second largest plurality nationwide (second fiddle, again, to Utah's adorable groupthink). Idaho swallowed W. whole, and last week's uprising was a sign of the acidic Bush administration repeating on us, Oxley said.

Armchair pundits point to the state's rapidly changing demographics. Idaho has grown by half since 1990. Six cities became metropolitan zones in the past decade. Canyon County is the epicenter, gaining a third of its population in the last four years. The state's make-up is changing, they say. Change begets change.

But still.

Maybe what happened here was about more than demographics or Bush-spite. Maybe Idaho Dems, maligned in unfriendly territory and forced to make the best of it, saw a bit of themselves in Barack Obama. They saw a man who can do one better than fight the eternal Republican machine, a man who can work together with adversaries to get something done.

In Blaine County, Idaho's liberal anomaly, 1,200 people stuffed themselves into an auditorium fit for 575. When the ballots ran out, they voted on stationary lent by the local newspaper. Listening to a few Hillary Clinton supporters caucus for their candidate amidst such energy, one was reminded of the old Paul Simon tune, "Maybe I Think Too Much."

For the scrappy progressives out here in the sage and snow, it came down to the difference between thinking and feeling. Clinton presents unmatched policy acumen. Her proposals are sweeping and detailed. But people don't walk two snowy miles to vote for a proposal. They don't stand for hours in a stuffy room to show their solidarity with a policy. They did it because they felt, deep within them, that this time was different, that there is an enduring truth in his message of uplift and unity.

The disparity of feeling between these candidates is akin to that which separates a painting of a sunrise and the thing itself. From the former you get a sense of grandeur, a thin notion of possibility. From the latter, we awake, warmed and stirred to rise in response.