It’s entirely possible that Utah will become something of a swing state for the 2016 election.
Speaking with CNN on Thursday, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson said he’s had several conversations with Mitt Romney and that the former Massachusetts governor is considering endorsing the libertarian and his running mate William Weld in the election this fall.
"I think he's considering the possibility of doing this," Johnson said, "of actually endorsing the two of us."
Romney has previously said he would think about voting for Johnson. He’s even gone farther to say that he would vote for Weld if he was on the presidential ticket, according to CNN.
"If Bill Weld were at the top of the ticket, it would be very easy for me to vote for Bill Weld for president," Romney told CNN last month. "So I'll get to know Gary Johnson better and see if he's someone who I could end up voting for. That's something which I'll evaluate over the coming weeks and months."
Of course, some magic needs to happen before an endorsement happens. Johnson doesn’t want to push Romney to endorse him until he reaches the 15 percent voter threshold he needs to be included in national debates, he told CNN. An endorsement wouldn’t mean much otherwise. Recent polls show Johnson hovering around 11 percent nationally.
Though a Romney endorsement would have implications nationally for the 2016 election, it could have a bigger impact locally in Utah, potentially turning the Beehive State — which, like Romney, refuses to fully support GOP candidate Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — into a swing state.
Recent polls in Utah show that the libertarian Johnson is pulling votes away from the GOP candidate, after all. According to a SurveyUSA poll reported on by The Washington Post, Trump and Clinton remained tied with 35 percent of the vote in polls with Johnson earning 13 percent.
“And, indeed, if there's a state that might be the most inviting to a third-party candidacy, it would be Utah. Utah and Idaho — the two states with the highest Mormon populations — were among Ross Perot's best in 1992, each giving him 27 percent of the vote. Perot even outpolled Bill Clinton in Utah,” The Washington Post reported.
An endorsement from Romney, who’s always had Utah’s favor given he’s a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and played such a prominent role in the 2002 Olympics, could increase those numbers. And given that Bernie Sanders, who polled really well in Utah during the caucus earlier this year (he grabbed 29 of Utah’s 37 Democratic delegates), will be campaigning in Utah in support of Clinton, Trump could lose this traditionally red state.
And as Politico reported, Trump’s presidential victory somewhat relies on him banking on all the traditionally red states.
“If he does pull off the election of the century, Trump’s path to 270 Electoral College votes will begin with 164 practically in the bank, from 21 solid-red states generally considered sure things for the Republican nominee,” according to Politico.
But if Utah were to go blue, which it hasn’t done since 1964, Trump would lose out on six of his electoral votes. Not a significant amount by any means, as this map from FiveThirtyEight shows, but it would force Trump to pick up a blue or swing state to climb closer to victory.
If Mitt Romney endorses Gary Johnson, Trump could realistically lose deep red Utah and have almost no path to 270.— Matt Murphy (@MattMurph24) July 28, 2016
Still, this may not be the way things turn out. As we reported last week, Utahns have slowly changed their tune when it comes to supporting Trump, which means the state may lean red when it comes to November. It helps Trump too that his running mate Mike Pence has been a huge religious freedom advocate, something that Utahns also endorse.
It also doesn’t look like Trump will have much of a problem here, either. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast says Trump has a 92 percent chance of winning Utah’s six electoral votes.
And, even if Romney endorsed Johnson and hurt Trump’s chances in Utah, it may not matter come election day, since those who vote for Johnson actually help Trump nationally. The Huffington Post put together a data set that showed votes for Johnson hurt Clinton more than Trump. When people are asked to vote for Trump or Clinton nationally, Clinton has a slim lead.
But when people are asked to vote for either Clinton, Trump or Johnson, Clinton’s lead drops by 4 percent, whereas Trump’s drops just 3 percent, HuffPost reported.
Regardless of what happens in Utah, and how a potential Romney endorsement of Johnson could affect the Beehive State, many national eyes seem focused on the state, and will continue to be so until November.
“The state's aversion to both the Clintons and Trump provides a unique recipe for November, and there is perhaps no state in which Johnson has a better shot at really catching on,” The Washington Post reported. “Which is not to say that Trump is going to lose one of the most Republican states in the country — to either Clinton or Johnson. But it is to say that it's worth watching. The fact that Republicans in Utah so thoroughly dislike Trump is one of the stranger electoral dynamics we're likely to see in an election year already full of strange dynamics.”
Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret Digital Media.