Utah will once again be the focus of presidential politics when the University of Utah hosts the final presidential debate on Oct. 9, 2024. It will be exciting for citizens of the Beehive State. However, we’re far from knowing who will be standing on that debate stage 10 months from now. We analyze the current state of presidential politics as it relates to Utah.

A recent Deseret News/HarrisX poll revealed 20% of Utah Republicans preferred former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be Donald Trump’s running mate should he secure the nomination. Some 18% selected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In an October poll, the question, “If the 2024 Republican presidential primary were held today, who would you vote for?” resulted in 30% for Trump; 14%, DeSantis; 13%, Haley; 12%, other candidates; and 20% undecided. What does this reveal about the Republican nomination in Utah?

Pignanelli: “There are two Republican primaries happening — the primary to challenge Trump and the primary against Trump for the GOP nomination. The first must end conclusively or Trump wins the second by plurality.” — Marc Thiessen, Fox News

These surveys offer fun calculations. Despite commanding leads in other states, Trump struggles in Utah. Adding undecided to the 39% that want someone else, the resulting 59% indicates Utahns desire an alternative to the former president.

Immediately after the 2022 elections, almost 100 frustrated local Republican officials sent a letter to DeSantis, urging him to run for president. He was then 11 points ahead of Trump. However, DeSantis’ popularity slowly dropped in Utah and nationally, while Haley’s reputation rose.

The unknown factor is that the Utah Republican presidential preference election will be decided by those attending precinct caucuses, and not a general ballot. It is difficult to predict where these activists will be in late winter.

Political observers were amazed by a Marquette University survey stating that Haley performed the best against President Joe Biden, 55% to 44%. The calculus indicates Utah Republicans are leading a subtle national trend.

Webb: I, unfortunately, can’t see Haley or DeSantis overtaking Trump for the GOP nomination, unless he’s serving a lengthy prison sentence. Even then, many of his supporters would stick with him. Trump will also likely win Utah’s electoral votes, although with not as large a margin as in most other Republican states.

Why Republicans support Trump when better alternatives exist remains a mystery to me. Personally, I don’t like bullies. And Trump acts like a junior high school bully. He claims to be 50 points ahead of DeSantis and Haley, but instead of being magnanimous (he would not understand the meaning of that word), he personally insults them and calls them stupid names (“birdbrain Haley”). Does he not understand he will need the votes of their supporters in the general election?

Someone placed me on Trump’s email lists, so I get all of his campaign email messages (about a dozen a day). I can barely stand to read them. He constantly belittles his competitors, not just disagreeing with them on policy, but engaging in personal insults. He boasts, he exaggerates, he lies, he rewrites history. He has massive character flaws and is simply not fit to be president. Either DeSantis or Haley, by contrast, would be stable, sensible and tough conservative presidents.

An earlier Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll affirmed 65% of Utahns disapproved of President Biden. As of this week an aggregate of national surveys compiled by FiveThirtyEight affirmed 55.4% of Americans disapprove of Biden (53.1% have similar negative attitude towards Trump). How will this affect presidential deliberations in Utah?

Pignanelli: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz captured almost 70% of the votes cast in the Utah Republican presidential primary in 2016 (Trump received 16%). Of all the red states, Utah performs the worst for Trump. Consequently, the desire to dump Biden may push precinct caucus attendees to select the strongest alternative to Trump still standing on March 5. Afterwards, there will be six months of Biden bashing in the primary and general elections.

Webb: Unfortunately for Democrats, Biden is the likely Democratic nominee. He will lose in Utah, even against Trump, and probably in enough swing states for Trump to reclaim the presidency. I’ve been watching presidential politics for 50 years and I don’t believe we’ve had two worse presidential frontrunners. One is mercurial and vengeful and the other is feeble and will destroy the economy with massive deficits and federal spending. Both parties should select younger nominees who are more vigorous and more acceptable to the general electorate. But I worry it’s too late. 

Utah’s presidential preference election will be on “Super Tuesday,” March 5, 2024, along with 17 other states and a territory. Could Utah have a real impact on this massive event?

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Pignanelli: Ten primary/caucus elections will occur before this mega-election, weeding out the weakest candidates. The precinct caucus attendees determining the Utah selection is a smaller audience. Thus, candidates can spend less to gain more traction in gathering valuable convention delegates. Our state could be a critical breakthrough for a trending contender.

Webb: Assuming they’re still alive (politically) in March, DeSantis and Haley will be scrambling for every possible delegate. So if either one thinks a win is possible in Utah, the state could attract significant attention.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this op-ed cited a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll when the data was actually from a Deseret News/HarrisX poll.

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