What if Oregon Voted First

The 2016 presidential sweepstakes may have a very different complexion – and different winners – if voting started in Oregon rather than Iowa.

The 2016 presidential sweepstakes may have a very different complexion – and different winners – if voting started in Oregon rather than Iowa.

Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn wondered aloud over the weekend how the presidential sweepstakes would differ if the first voter test was in Oregon instead of Iowa. It is a fascinating question. And it is not ridiculous to believe Oregon should have the honor of voting first since the state invented the idea of presidential preference voting in 1910. 

If the first test of presidential timber was in Oregon, chances are good early momentum in the race would go to candidates known for being more practical and less ideological, even if the ultimate party nominee would be unchanged.

For example, in the contested 1964 GOP primary, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller captured Oregon, defeating eventual nominee Barry Goldwater. In 1968, Robert Kennedy picked up momentum in Oregon, even though he lost to Eugene McCarthy, that vaulted him to victory in the California primary. Kennedy may have gone on to win the Democratic nomination, and perhaps defeated Richard Nixon, if not for his election-night assassination in Los Angeles.

In the past three Iowa caucuses, Hawkeye state Republicans have given the edge to Mike Huckabee (2008), Rick Santorum (2012) and Ted Cruz (2016). All three were the favorite of Christian evangelicals. In a relative unchurched state such as Oregon, Sarasohn speculates none of the three might have gained as much political traction as they did in Iowa. Neither Huckabee nor Santorum rode their Iowa caucus victories to much further electoral success and Cruz is already facing strong headwinds in New Hampshire, where Republicans view themselves more as a constituency than a congregation.

The Republican tradition in Oregon has centered on conservative pragmatism. Vic Atiyeh, the last GOP governor in Oregon, tried to make state government more efficient, not make it smaller. Republican lawmakers in Oregon today battle against many tax increases and additional regulations, but they generally avoid fighting culture wars over contentious social issues. They fiercely defend gun rights but rarely talk about their personal religious views.

Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are perhaps the best matches in the 2016 GOP presidential field for Oregon’s Republican constituency. Kasich was an also-ran in Iowa, but appears to be gaining some momentum in New Hampshire, which like Oregon puts some value on experience and pragmatism. Bush, who has conducted a clumsy campaign, is lagging in the polls, but you could imagine he might have gotten off to a stronger start if the first vote occurred in Oregon rather than Iowa.

Cruz, the Iowa winner, had trouble with ethanol subsidies, a big deal for corn farmers. You can imagine the difficulty he would have had in Oregon coming to terms with voter-approved recreational marijuana and a burgeoning business sector to supply it.

Republican candidates also would have been tested this year by the occupation of the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge. They would have been unable to dodge questions about the illegal confiscation of federal property and simmering grazing rights issues.

In recent times, both the Republican and Democratic nominees have been coronated by the time the Oregon primary arrives in May. That may not be the case this year. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is facing an unexpectedly vigorous challenge from Bernie Sanders that could go all the way until this summer’s Democratic convention. If Oregon had voted first, Sanders may have carried away the victory, giving his looming landslide in New Hampshire tomorrow even greater weight.

As Oregon has become a more reliably blue state in presidential and statewide electoral voting, Oregon also has become more liberal on issues such as physician-assisted suicide, an issue that just popped up in New Hampshire. With virtually no military presence in Oregon and relatively few defense contractors, voting against going to war is a bipartisan pattern, from Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield to Oregon’s current Democratic congressional delegation. Rand Paul – who was the most dovish GOP presidential candidate until he ended his campaign over the weekend – might have found a more welcoming audience for his foreign policy views.

Oregon is one of the most trade-dependent states in the union and almost all of its congressional delegation supports free-trade agreements, which could have made it awkward for Clinton and Sanders to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, at least without some stiff questioning.

Oregon Democrats and Republicans have a record of nominating and electing women to high office, which Iowa only recently embraced with the election of Joni Ernst to the U.S. Senate. Clinton might have found an edge in soliciting the active support of Governor Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, former House Majority Leader Val Hoyle and candidate for secretary of state and current House Speaker Tina Kotek, all of whom will be in the 2016 ballot, too.

The Republican candidate who earned the endorsement of Congressman Greg Walden, who represents Oregon east of the Cascade Range – and who contracted for the best helicopter service – may have had the clear advantage. Walden was a close ally of former Speaker John Boehner who was forced out by conservative Tea Party House members.

Caucus winners in Iowa generally are the candidates with the best ground game and who press the flesh. Cruz appeared in every Iowa county. So did Barack Obama in his startling political arrival in 2008. Oregon is bigger and its rural, red-leaning voters are harder to canvass. However, Democratic candidates can campaign pretty much along I-5 from Portland to Eugene, giving them a logistical edge, but not anything requiring the same kind of retail politics that Iowans demand.

Iowa Democrats are found largely in cities with universities and industry with organized labor. Iowans may not be as hip as Portlanders view themselves, but they aren't mugwumps, either. They produced a virtual dead-heat between Clinton and Sanders.

It does make you wonder what the outcome would have been if Hillary and Bernie had to impress Oregon Democrats first. It does make you wonder whether Republicans Lindsey Graham or Rand Paul would have dropped out before or after the Oregon primary.

What if…

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.