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Inside the newsroom: Trump vs. Biden in Utah. Will there be a presidential race here?

Does Joe Biden have a chance to turn red Utah Blue? Can President Trump’s conservative record hold off the empathetic Biden?

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Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY— Among the many questions that came into the newsroom last week were these intriguing inquiries:

  1. Does Joe Biden have a chance to turn red Utah blue?
  2. Is Biden’s religious foundation enough to convince Utah voters that he will balance LGBTQ rights with religious liberty concerns?

To the first question, a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll would indicate it’s a steep climb. Little has changed since April, despite a nation turned upside down by COVID-19 and the economic upheaval it caused.

The results show that half of registered voters polled said they would vote for President Donald Trump if the election were held today, compared to 31% who would go with Biden. As Lisa Riley Roche reports, “only 11% said they are unsure who they’d choose,” in the poll conducted July 2-Aug. 1 of 1,000 registered Utah voters.

It shows no change from April, when the Deseret News/Hinckley poll showed 51% of Utahns said they would vote to reelect the Republican president, compared to 32% who would cast their ballot for Biden. 

Former President Donald Trumps gives a speech.

President Donald Trump pauses while speaking in the East Room of the White House in Washington on March 29, 2017.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Scott Howell, a former Democratic leader in the Utah Senate, told our reporter that the poll shows that Biden supporters like himself have work to do, but he noted dissatisfaction among both Democrats and Republicans about the president’s handling of the pandemic makes this a dynamic race.

Trump has been heavily criticized across the country as the number of reported U.S. COVID-19 cases moves toward 5 million and U.S. deaths top 161,000.

In Utah, the poll results also show that 55% of respondents said they approve of the president’s job performance, while 42% disapprove. Howell is right that there is less satisfaction with his handling of the pandemic than his overall job performance, with 52% expressing approval of his handling of the crisis and 45% disapproval.

Pollsters point out that April’s results and the August poll results are a moment in time; they are not predictive of the race. Which brings us to question No. 2: Biden has suffered personal familial loss, is empathetic and leans on his faith. Will that translate into policy that balances religious liberty with LGBTQ rights?

Deseret News reporter Kelsey Dallas, a national leader in religion reporting, last week explored Biden’s appeal to the religious community in the compelling piece, “Do religious voters like Trump or Biden best?” It took readers through the case the candidates are making to Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Latter-day Saint voters.

She followed that with a piece this weekend weighing whether Biden’s views on religious liberty are enough to swing Latter-day Saints and others who may be disenchanted with Trump. It’s headlined: “Joe Biden’s tough road ahead on religious freedom.”

As Dallas wrote in the first piece: “... Trump’s efforts to reduce access to abortion and increase legal protections for faith groups,” his work on international religious freedom and his commitment to appoint conservative judges remains a strong appeal for evangelicals.

Her second piece looks at how the Democrat approaches religious liberty: Biden believes “in a broad definition of religious freedom,” one supporter said, noting the former vice president wants all religions to thrive. But Dallas goes deeper to look at whether Biden’s views on religious liberty extend to providing faith-based exemptions to nondiscrimination policies and other laws.

Both the poll results and the exploration of Trump’s and Biden’s views on faith are necessary reading this week. The media is rightly criticized (often by media members themselves) for covering elections as a horse race. We want to use the polling to see if there are movements in attitudes among Utahns. But we will give issues-based reports between now and November comparing the presidential candidates and their past performance.

We invite you, dear readers, to let us know the issues you care about in the presidential election, congressional elections and in the local races you care about.

Rep. John Lewis, who died July 1 at the age of 80, left us with this: “I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.”