With four weeks until Election Day, 2nd District Rep. Jim Matheson is crushing his GOP challenger, John Swallow, by 32 percentage points, a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll shows.
But Swallow says he will "close quickly" and the 2004 finals will be like the pair's 2002 contest: "A horse race and a very close vote."
The survey, conducted by pollster Dan Jones & Associates, found that if the election were held today, Matheson, D-Utah, would get 63 percent support from registered voters; Swallow would get 31 percent, and minor party candidates trail badly. Only 5 percent of those surveyed were undecided, Jones found, meaning that Swallow has the task of taking a significant number of votes away from Matheson to even come close to winning.
Swallow said: "We will have two more weeks of TV (ads) than we had in 2002," when Swallow lost a squeaker to Matheson. "This race will be deja vu all over again," Swallow joked, adding that with President Bush and statewide GOP candidates winning big, he'll end up OK as well.
But for now, at least, things are not looking good for Swallow, who lost to Matheson two years ago by less than 1 percentage point in one of the closest U.S. House races of 2002.
Matheson, who hopes to come home to campaign full time as Congress adjourns later this week, said: "I think these are great, great numbers. (The poll) validates what I've said all along, that Utahns don't want someone to go back to Washington and vote someone else's agenda, but represent them."
And the poll reflects "just how hard I've worked" both in campaigning off the Wasatch Front and spending time around the large geographic district, said Matheson. Jones found that Matheson actually leads Swallow 54-42 percent in the district's non-Wasatch Front counties, which are heavily Republican.
Matheson has raised more than $1 million and has said for more than a year that he believed he'd do better in the newly enlarged 2nd District than he did in 2002.
Swallow, too, has raised significantly more money than he had two years ago. But like 2002, Swallow had a GOP convention and primary battle this year, which took time and money.
Matheson is putting up some startling numbers, Jones found in the new survey, especially considering the 2nd District votes about 60 percent Republican in other partisan races.
Matheson is getting 36 percent of the Republican vote and 84 percent of the independent vote. It is generally assumed that in the 2nd District, which includes the eastern part of Salt Lake County and counties to the east and south, the winning candidate must get a significant number of independent voters.
Matheson is getting two-thirds of the female vote.
Matheson is even getting slightly more of the "active LDS" vote than Swallow: 47 to 46 percent.
The incumbent Democrat is getting 70 percent of the Salt Lake County vote.
Political experts said in 2002 that for Matheson to hold his newly redrawn district he had to win the more politically mixed county by 60 percent. And he barely did that.
In his rematch run this year, Swallow said he'd do much better in Salt Lake County than he did in 2002. But so far that isn't happening, Jones found.
But while the new poll numbers are bleak for Swallow, his campaign aides say things will turn around quickly.
This week the National Republican Campaign Committee, which has targeted the race, started pouring cash into the Utah TV market, buying its first rounds of ads in what is called an "independent expenditure."
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but longtime GOP campaign strategist Dave Hansen, who is advising the Swallow camp, said it appears the NRCC could be pumping up to $125,000 a week into pro-Swallow buys. The NRCC's latest Federal Election Committee reports show it has spent $202,544 recently on pro-Swallow campaigning.
In the final four weeks of the campaign, the NRCC could spend upward of $600,000 on TV, $200,000 on direct mail and $100,000 telephoning GOP voters to encourage them to vote for Swallow, said Hansen, who adds he has no personal knowledge of what the NRCC will actually do but does know what is possible in the last month of a high-profile Utah congressional contest.
"We started our own TV ads Tuesday. The NRCC started Saturday. Both come after your poll," said Swallow.
Add the national party spending to Swallow's own campaign spending and many normally GOP voters will be turned from Matheson to Swallow, Hansen believes.
But Matheson said: "If the NRCC believes these (new poll) numbers, I don't think they'll spend much more in this race — not with a 32 point deficit" by their GOP candidate.
Matheson's own campaign will spend around $750,000 on TV ads, he said; the first ones started running two weeks ago.
Matheson added he expects Swallow or Swallow supporters to start negative TV ads. In the end, however, he expects a healthy victory Nov. 2 — "by a greater margin than two years ago."
Swallow said he doesn't know what the NRCC's ads will say, but his own TV ads will "compare Jim's record in Congress to what I would do; yes, we'll talk about how he's performed."
One sidelight: If it looks as if Swallow and President Bush are younger in the NRCC TV ads than they appear today, it's because the footage is from Swallow's 2002 campaign. Hansen says the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law resulted in problems for the Bush re-election campaign if the president shot new ads for GOP congressional candidates, so the old 2002 video was just recycled.