Recent polls indicate interesting opinion shifts among Utah voters. Your columnists are not psychics, but we do read the political equivalent of tea leaves for what these developments mean in Utah politics.

A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey shows Gov. Spencer Cox enjoys a strong 64% approval rating (a very slight increase from a 2022 survey of 63%) among Utah voters. Especially interesting is the shift in support within demographic groups. Conservatives increased approval for the governor by 5%, moderates by almost 20%, while liberals dropped by an average of 25%. What is causing these changes, and how does this affect gubernatorial actions and upcoming campaigns? 

Pignanelli: “When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.” — Walt Disney  

Politicos can slice and dice the numbers but the outcome stays the same — Cox remains one of America’s most popular governors. His 21st-century predecessors were equally well-liked, establishing a formula of compassionate conservatism that appealed to a large majority of Utahns.

Cox’s personality is sincere and conveys a sense of humanity. These features are unavoidably attractive, especially to younger citizens. Thus, Cox will be a player on the national stage in some capacity.

The shift within a short six months among the political extremes is an important indicator. Ultraconservatives were grumbling about Cox but now seem at least tolerant of him. Furthermore, his alignment with legislative objectives soothed prior concerns but also dropped favorability on the left. This is significant. Potential inter-party challengers in 2024 who assumed easy support from the far right now must reassess. Readers can expect future actions and pronouncements from the governor’s office to protect this trajectory.

Cox’s popularity is a well-deserved outcome from a humane demeanor (appreciated in today’s environment) … and a clever strategy.

Related
Poll: Utah Gov. Cox gaining popularity among conservatives, liberal approval rating slips

Webb: At heart, Cox is a compassionate conservative. His conservative side was apparent in the last legislative session when he supported conservative Republican positions on a number of hot-button cultural subjects, including abortion and transgender issues. He has also taken some strong positions against a number of Biden administration policies. That has cost him some support among liberals and Democrats, but it has bolstered his support among conservatives and moderates who lean conservative.

Politically, this is all good for the governor. His positions align with the views of most Utahns. Politicians have a natural tendency to want everyone to like them under all circumstances. It never works that way, and politicians are always better off following their instincts and personal principles rather than trying to keep everyone happy.

Politicians were elected to lead public opinion, not follow it. A governor who enjoys a lot of political capital, like Cox, needs to invest it, not hoard it. Happily for Cox, his instincts and principles align quite nicely with the views of most Utahns. That’s the political sweet spot.

The same poll indicated that 51% of Utahns believe the Legislature has the most influence, while 36% suggest the governor prevails. Yet less than two months ago a similar survey stated the governor and legislature shared an equal percentage of voters (34%) in response to who held the most influence.

Pignanelli: For the last two months Utahns were bombarded in various media forms about how much the Legislature accomplished in the recent session and the far-reaching effects. Also, voters perceived these statements matched a reality the Legislature is driving a major public policy agenda, regardless of whether they concur with the details. Consequently, respondents conveyed to pollsters their belief the legislative branch is extremely influential this time of the year.

Lawmakers are not sitting on their laurels. Hundreds of bill files opened this month, in addition to an aggressive summer Interim agenda, for potential deliberations in the 2024 session. Thus, legislators will continue their hold on the designation as influential for some time.

Related
Who has more political influence in Utah, the governor or the legislature?
Poll: Most Utahns give the Legislature a thumbs-up. Here’s why

Webb: The Legislature gets the spotlight for 45 days, and with it comes perceived influence. As I’ve said many times, healthy competition and a little tension among branches of government is good for the state. Lawmakers and executives always have different perspectives. The rights and freedoms of citizens are protected by the separation of powers and inability of any one politician to dominate.

It often makes sense for a governor to stay somewhat in the background as the legislative process moves forward, while subtly influencing legislation. That’s better than picking public fights with lawmakers.

The reality is we have a mostly mainstream conservative Legislature working with a mainstream conservative governor. They don’t disagree a great deal on most issues.  

What factors could modify voters’ perceptions of their state government in the next year?

Pignanelli: A federal government closure due to failed debt talks could easily highlight the efficiency of our state government. However, damage from flooding or challenges to infrastructure use because of growth may breed citizen grumpiness.

Webb: Rapid growth and its related challenges (water, transportation, housing, land use, air quality, crime, etc.), remain the state’s greatest test in the years ahead. Politicians will be judged on how well they cope.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired 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.