Polls. Polls. Polls. For veteran observers (aka political hacks) like your columnists, these are manna from heaven. The Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics released several surveys in the last week that are savory. We share our thoughts.
In the first poll of Utah’s U.S. Senate race, the results among Republican voters were: Congressman John Curtis, 18%; attorney Brent Hatch, 14%; former House Speaker Brad Wilson, 8%; Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, 3%; other candidates combined, 5%; and undecided, 52%. What do these numbers reveal about Utah voters and the state of the race?
Pignanelli: “The key to getting the most from choice is to be choosy about choosing.” — Sheena Iyengar
Utahns are well-known, savvy, picky shoppers. They are demonstrating this “virtue” in selecting their next U.S. senator and not rushing the decision.
But these numbers reveal much more. Hatch’s performance surprised insiders, a testimony to the deep affection for his beloved father, the late Sen. Orrin Hatch. The popular Curtis was expected to enjoy a leading position after seven years in Congress, yet private polls conducted last year yielded higher percentages for him. Wilson still needs to transform his good work as a lawmaker into an engine of support.
Curtis’ PAC allies and the Wilson campaign pumped television advertising late last year that produced limited benefits in the poll. This documents a trend in local and national elections that bombarding airways with commercials is no longer an effective tactic (as demonstrated by Celeste Maloy’s victory). Greater emphasis on grassroots politics, social media and clever messaging will deliver success in the June primary.
This race is still very much up for grabs and more than just a fat campaign account will move the needle among fussy voters.
Webb: Whoever wins this race will have to earn it. Curtis and Hatch have the highest name ID at this point, but that won’t be enough to win. We recently saw Congresswoman Celeste Maloy come out of nowhere to defeat better-known candidates. Congressman Blake Moore did the same in 2020.
Curtis is the front-runner, and rightly so. But all the other candidates will be targeting him, trying to define him as a moderate — the second coming of Sen. Mitt Romney (as though that’s a bad thing). In reality, Curtis is plenty conservative, but he’s not a flame-throwing, name-calling right-winger. He’s a thoughtful, practical conservative. The sort of conservative who actually gets conservative things done instead of just ranting about liberal failures.
A major question is whether Hatch can pull off what his father, Orrin Hatch, did way back in 1976. The elder Hatch, an unknown conservative firebrand, pulled off a big upset over better-known “establishment” candidates.
And Wilson is not to be counted out. He has significant establishment support and has raised a lot of money, self-funding a big chunk of it. Money doesn’t guarantee a win but, spent wisely, money is a big factor.
Another poll result showed Gov. Spencer Cox enjoys a huge lead among Republicans in his reelection bid. He captures 50% support, with 14% combined for other candidates, and 37% undecided. Is this race over?
Pignanelli: Although diminishing in numbers, sunny, optimistic conservatives — like Cox — are a powerful force in American politics. Further, his achievements include economic prosperity despite a global pandemic and explain high approval ratings. Utah continues to be acknowledged as well-managed and poised to win another Olympic bid. His opponents’ standings reflect the difficulty of their messaging against a proven, popular incumbent.
Webb: A political earthquake would be required to prevent Cox from winning a second term. The right wing, of course, considers him a dastardly moderate. So Cox, of late, has been burnishing his conservative credentials. He may be pandering a bit to the far right but, at heart, Cox is a solid conservative. He’s also a practical, mainstream conservative who really cares about people. That’s a good thing. Cox should be able to keep most conservatives in the corral while also winning the moderate and independent vote.
A survey of 801 registered Utah voters shows a snapshot of the presidential contest, with Donald Trump winning 43% support; Joe Biden, 33%; and any another candidate, 24%. So, are a quarter of Utahns really interested in a third party?
Pignanelli: Many Americans and Utahns shudder at a possible rematch of the 2020 election, thereby promoting talk of third parties. These are not far-fetched discussions because Reform party candidate Ross Perot did score second place in Utah in the 1996 elections. Alternative choices (especially anti-vax conservatives or environmentalist liberals) could pull votes from either major candidate, with potential impact on the ultimate outcome. But the question is likely moot. Utah is a deeply red state and Trump will likely prevail.
Webb: On paper and in polls, a third-party candidate often looks good. But in actual voting, such candidates seldom do well. Ultimately, people don’t want to waste their votes. Lots of voters this year don’t like either Trump or Biden, so they are flirting with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But on Election Day, most of them are going to say, “I think Biden is too old and feeble, but I can’t stand the thought of Trump in the White House again, so I’ll hold my nose and vote for Biden.” Or vice versa. People who don’t like Trump’s morals will vote for him anyway because they think Biden will keep the borders open and crash the economy.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: email@example.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.