As Utah prepares for a visit from GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis on Friday, a new poll of the state’s Republican voters shows former President Donald Trump has pulled ahead.

Trump has led in the national polls for some time, even as he has struggled to win the trust of voters in Utah. DeSantis has shown signs of strength in the state, but the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows him falling behind.

None of the other Republican candidates, however, have so far come close to knocking DeSantis off his second-place perch.

Fresh off his CNN interview, Ron DeSantis will visit Utah Friday

Of the 495 registered Utah Republican voters surveyed, 29% said they would vote for Trump and 24% said they would choose DeSantis. Former Vice President Mike Pence comes in third with 6%, followed by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, both at 4%.

The poll was conducted by Dan Jones and Associates from June 26 to July 4. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points for Republican voters.

In the previous month’s poll, the margin was closer, with Trump ahead of DeSantis 27%-26%.

In the latest poll, Trump does well with voters who identify as very conservative and among those who completed only high school. DeSantis is even with Trump among very active Latter-day Saints, and does slightly better among voters who identify with neither political party.

Trump in Utah

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said the poll shows Trump still holds sway over Republicans.

“It’s interesting because Trump always had his struggles here,” Burbank said. “He was never the kind of strong candidate that he was in some other heavily Republican states. But I think what we see from Republican primaries in general right now is it looks like Trump is the leading candidate. DeSantis is sort of the preferred alternative for Republican voters.” 

Burbank said he was mystified by the hold Trump has on Republican voters, especially after his legal troubles, and given that he doesn’t take strong positions on many issues or look different from other candidates when it comes to policy.

“It’s a real mystery as far as I’m concerned, simply because there clearly is a very strong attachment among some Republican voters with Donald Trump, just a sort of personal attachment,” Burbank said.

But, he said, Trump does seem to be better than DeSantis at establishing a connection with voters, and is a better politician.

Michael Barber, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said he is also surprised to see Trump’s durability among Republican voters.

“There seems to be about 50% of the Republican primary electorate that is just there with Donald Trump no matter what, and no amount of indictments or new revelations about his involvement there seem to budge them — they represent a pretty substantial portion of the Republican primary electorate,” he said.

But, he pointed out, Trump may not have that same durability among the general electorate.

Most important quality: moral character

In another poll question, Utahns were asked what qualities they most want in a leader. The first choice, at 33%, was moral character, followed by trustworthiness at 17%.

Moral character was the first choice across several categories of voters — Republicans and Democrats, among the very conservative to the very liberal, and among voters with varying levels of education. The only demographic who did not choose it first were voters whose incomes are in the range of $24,000 to $49,999 a year, who picked business experience first.

Given voters’ concerns about moral character, you might expect Trump’s continued legal problems to hurt him in the polls in Utah. So far he has been indicted for allegedly covering up payments to a former mistress during the 2016 presidential campaign, and for mishandling classified documents after leaving office.

He also could face charges over the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Burbank said he has seen in his research that people “often find ways to square dissonant information.”

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“And so I don’t find Donald Trump to be a particularly upstanding moral character, but there are lots of people who would argue that he is, and I think that you can find ways to square that circle so that you can reduce the dissonance in your head,” he said.

Republicans in Congress have been holding hearings where they’ve called into question President Joe Biden’s moral leadership, especially related to possible interference on behalf of his son Hunter Biden, who was charged with two misdemeanors related to his taxes and a felony over his handling of a firearm.

But Burbank said he doesn’t think there is any equivalency there.

“I think it’s very difficult to look at what Hunter Biden is in trouble for — probably as an individual, he’s done some things are wrong, he’s pled guilty to things,” Burbank said. “So that clearly is a problem. But, I don’t think that is directly attached to his father.”

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