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Utah conservatives put U.S. peers to shame

Republicans in other states seem almost liberal

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Utah turned Bill Haddock into a Democrat.

He didn't want that. Born and bred in the Republican heartland of Sen. Robert Taft's Ohio, Haddock had voted "straight Republican" all his life. Proud of it.

But when American Stores transferred him to Utah in 1981, Haddock says he struck "this conservative political wall."

The stark political atmosphere hit home after he'd been in town a month. Haddock answered his door one weekend to find a woman holding a clipboard.

"She asked me to sign a petition to renew the effort on the Equal Rights Amendment. Back in Ohio, even in California where I'd just been transferred from, all the Republicans I knew supported the ERA. Just about everyone did. So I said sure, I'd sign. She was so happy. I looked down on the sheet and there were no names. She said she'd been knocking on doors all over my (West Valley) neighborhood that morning, and I was the first guy who would sign."

Haddock soon decided he had to vote Democratic while in Utah. "The Democrats were like Republicans" he'd known elsewhere. "The (Utah) Republicans were, well, something else."

Haddock's real-life experience was teaching him what political experts — and now two extensive Deseret News polls — show: Utahns are more conservative than other Americans.

It's part of who we are. And for outsiders and state citizens alike, it's a political and moral climate some advocate and relish, others bemoan and criticize.

Measuring perceptions

In an effort to quantify where Utahns stand in relation to other Americans on the liberal /conservative scale, the newspaper asked pollster Dan Jones & Associates to ask nine bellwether questions of people across the country — then ask Utahns the same questions.

The newspaper actually asked the nationwide and statewide survey questions twice — in 1999, to get what's called a baseline measurement of attitudes, and again in December 2000 to reaffirm the earlier data.

The results show Utahns to be more conservative on every issue asked but one.

In the most recent national and Utah surveys, Utahns were actually a bit more liberal than Americans as a whole on only one question: Prayer in public schools. However, in the 1999 baseline national and Utah polls, Utahns were more conservative on that issue as well. The small changes in attitudes between the two surveys are within the margin of error, however, Jones noted.

Jones found in all his polling that on some issues, like abortion and civil rights for gays and lesbians, Utahns are much more conservative than other Americans. On other issues, like prayer in public schools, they are closer to feelings nationally.

Jones, who has polled in Utah and across the country for 25 years, explains that when measuring people's attitudes in different general areas, it is best to consider the mean score of the respondents' answers. On the abortion question, for example, Utahns' mean score (on a scale of 1 to 10) is 1.45 points higher on the conservative scale than Americans in general.

"That is a major difference; Utahns are much more conservative" on that issue than the rest of the country, Jones said.

In years of polling, Jones said, he's rarely found Utahns' thinking so far out of tune with the rest of the nation. Another example of such divergence was Utahns' attitude toward the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Utahns were still much in favor of America being in the war while the rest of the nation was quickly tiring of the conflict, Jones said.

In viewing the newspaper's national conservative poll numbers against Utah's, Jones says any mean score difference greater than 0.50 "should be considered significant."

Using that significant variation standard, Utahns' views differed from the rest of the nation's by greater than 0.50 on the conservative side in five of the nine questions.

Why are Utahns so much more conservative?

Jones said Utah is missing an element in its population that's a moderating influence on the issues for which he surveyed: minorities. "We don't have the black, Asian or even the Hispanic numbers that you have in most other states. Our culture is one of uniformity."

2000 census numbers back up that finding. Despite a growing minority population, including a 138 percent increase in the number of Hispanics in the past decade, Utah remains the 13th-whitest state in the nation.

Double whammy

Brigham Young University political science professor David Magleby has watched the Utah and Western political scenes for years. Magleby, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Democrat, says Utah politics has a double whammy. It has a conservative Rocky Mountain "rugged individualism" in residents' political thinking combined with the moral stances of the LDS Church.

The Mountain West differs politically from both coasts as well as the Midwest, Magleby says. "Call it individualism, if you will. It's the pioneering spirit. The Sagebrush Rebellion. The strong distrust of the federal government, which owns so much of our land. It's the history of the people. We tamed this harsh wilderness, basically on our own without help. We're self-reliant."

And it's a spirit immigrants pick up on. Even if you moved West in the past 20 years pulling a U-Haul behind your car instead of driving a horse and wagon, you tend to assimilate the culture, Magleby believes.

The region is also different because, for many years, it lacked ethnic and racial diversity, he said.

We don't have the melting-pot influence, the diversity found in big Eastern cities or West Coast metropolises like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

So conservatism comes with the region — and it is the major factor for who we are politically. But when you combine that with the overwhelming presence of the LDS Church in Utah, "you find a political climate unique in the United States," Magleby says.

"This is one of the most religiously homogenous states in the nation. Over 70 percent identify with the Mormon Church. And for some time now, more than 50 percent of all voters say they are 'very active' Mormons." That is an amazing number, Magleby said, which can lead to another one: 80 percent of those serving in the Utah Legislature are LDS.

A moral tone

LDS people tend to champion moral causes that are less important to some other conservatives, Magleby said — opposing same-sex marriage, being pro-life, fighting against pornography.

"While you may have a large number of conservatives or Republicans elected in another (Rocky Mountain) state, you wouldn't see the moral tone" to their beliefs, he said.

In contrast, "Republicans in Wyoming may be more Libertarian in their philosophy — (keeping) government out of lifestyle issues, out of everything." But many Utah conservatives believe that government has a role in stopping abortion, stopping same-sex marriages, curtailing pornography and other such matters.

Haddock did not have to live the rest of his life as a Democrat. He was again transferred by American Stores in 1987, this time back to California, where he's gladly voting Republican. He says it was "moral" issues like the ERA, abortion and prayer in schools that set him apart from Utah Republicans.

Living in conservative Orange County now, Haddock says he has pro-choice Republican friends all around. "I don't know if I knew one pro-choice Republican" in Utah, he recalls.

Haddock says he voted for every Democrat he could in local Utah races but voted Republican for president and Congress. "It may sound strange, but Republicans needed all the help they could get (in the 1980s) at the national level, but they certainly didn't need any help around here. I haven't voted for a Democrat since leaving Utah. Who knows if I ever will again."

Said Haddock: "In Ohio, my Republican friends — (and) my mom and dad, who were lifelong, staunch Republicans — were concerned about fiscal issues, taxes, spending and those kind of things. But in Utah it seemed like the Republicans only cared about moral issues. Democrats (in Utah) were talking about cutting taxes. It was weird."

SCALE: 1 to 10

MEAN SCORE: The average of all respondents' scores.

NOTE: Any difference greater than 0.5 between Utah and U.S. should be considered significant.

Do you agree or disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow terminaton of pregnancies? (Low score agree, high score disagree)

Utah mean 7.02

U.S. mean 5.57

Difference +1.45

Do you favor or oppose doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients? (low score favor, high score oppose)

Utah mean 6.18

U.S. mean 5.60

Difference +0.58

How much invovlement should the federal government have in preserving and planning how open space land is used? (low score a lot, high score little)

Utah mean 6.27

U.S. mean 5.41

Difference +0.86

Do you favor or oppose enhanced protection of civil rights for gays and lesbians? (low score favor, high score oppose)

Utah mean 6.77

U.S. mean 5.69

Difference +1.08

Do you favor or oppose capitol punishment? (low score oppose, high score favor)

Utah mean 7.86

U.S. mean 7.38

Difference +0.48

Where do you stand on gun control, do you favor strict control or no gun control? (low score favor gun control, high score oppose)

Utah mean 5.26

U.S. mean 4.65

Difference +0.61

Do you feel the U.S. should allocate its resources more on domestic programs or national defense? (low score more on domestic spending, high score more on defense)

Utah mean 4.04

U.S. mean 3.81

Difference +0.23

Do you favor or oppose prayer in public schools? (low score oppose, high score, favor)

Utah mean 7.21

U.S. mean 7.48

Difference -0.27

Do you favor or oppose national health care? (low score favor, high score oppose)

Utah mean 5.96

U.S. mean 5.71

Difference +0.25

A poll of 1,001 U.S. residents was conducted Dec. 2000, by Dan Jones & Associates. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percent.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com