clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

REPUBLICANS HAVE EDGE IN GOP-DOMINATED UTAH

With the fields in the open races of governor, U.S. Senate and 2nd Congressional District pretty much set, it's now up to the Republican, Democratic and other party candidates to sell themselves to Utahns.

As they eye their challenges, one thing should be clear: Those who earn the Republican nomination will start - as they have for years in Utah - with a decided advantage.The reason is simple: A lot of Utahns are Republican.

"It is one of the most Republican states in the nation, still," says Dan Jones, of Dan Jones & Associates. Jones has polled, watched and analyzed Utah elections for decades.

Across the state, Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1. Since a fundamental shift in party preference that started in the 1970s and peaked in the Ronald Reagan era of the early 1980s, about 42 percent of the state's population historically say they're Republicans. Because Utahns don't register by party affiliation, there are no lists of party faithfuls.

Democrats come in at about 20 percent of the population, with fringe parties between 2-5 percent. Independents make up the rest of the population, Jones has found.

For an unknown Democrat trying for statewide office or a congressional seat, those are disappointing numbers.

But numbers aren't the whole story. Former Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson won in 1976 and again in 1980 - bucking the Reagan landslide that year.

Attorney General Paul Van Dam, also a Democrat, won office in 1988.

And Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, while losing a 1974 Senate race and a 1984 governor's race, won the 2nd Congressional District in 1986, 1988 and 1990. In fact, in 1990 Owens won by his largest margin ever.

Also in 1990, Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, won an upset victory in the conservative, Republican-dominated 3rd Congressional District.

But there have been more losses than victories for Democrats over the last 20 years, especially in gubernatorial and Senate races.

There are some bright spots for Democrats this year, however, Jones says.

First, the number of Utahns who say they're Republican is dropping.

"It reached a high of 43 percent during the early Reagan years," says Jones. "Now it has dropped to 39 percent - down from 42 percent just a year ago when (President) Bush was so popular during the Persian Gulf war."

Unfortunately, the number of Democratic loyalists dropped also from a high of 20 percent several years ago to 18 percent, Jones says.

Good news for Democratic Party officials is that more of their voters cast straight party tickets.

In 1990, 24 percent of Republicans cast a straight GOP ballot. But 37 percent of Utahns who say they are Democrats cast straight Democratic ballots that year, Jones found in a large exit poll of 8,300 voters.

Second, with the governor's, U.S. Senate, 2nd Congressional District and attorney general races all open this year - no incumbents running - the Democratic candidates don't have to fight the built-in power of incumbency.

But a continuing problem for Democratic candidates - the LDS voter - remains.

In 1990, of all Republican voters, 54 percent were members of the LDS Church, Jones found in exit interviews. But only 19 percent of Democratic voters were LDS.

Split-ticket voting - where a voter picks candidates from different parties on his ballot - will likely be back in 1992, Jones believes. "People (in Utah) are just disillusioned with the presidential candidates, all of them," Jones says.

Thus, the candidates who end up leading the ballots for governor and Senate could be more important than ever. They can set the tone of the election if the presidential candidates don't catch on in Utah.