SALT LAKE CITY — Burgess Owens, the Republican challenger in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, is leading Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams by a single percentage point in the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll results released Monday.
The poll found that 46% of likely voters in the 4th District would vote for Owens if the election were held today, compared to 45% for McAdams, Utah’s only Democratic member of Congress. Just 5% said they are not sure who’ll they vote for, and a total of 4% favor third-party candidates.
Conducted Oct. 12-17 by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of 800 likely voters in the 4th District, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“I’m a little surprised by these results,” Rasmussen said. “It hasn’t been a great month for Republicans overall in most polling data so to see Owens gaining some ground was a bit surprising. But realistically, the race was close a month ago with a very slight edge to McAdams. Now it’s as pure a toss-up as can possibly be.”
In September’s poll, McAdams was ahead of Owens, 45% to 41%. The Republican leaning district that includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties has long been seen as one of the most competitive congressional seats in the country, won by McAdams in 2018 by less than 700 votes over two-term GOP Rep. Mia Love.
Rasmussen said a shift in anticipated voter turnout could determine the ultimate winner in the Nov. 3 election, noting the race “is far from over.”
He said if Democrats turn out in bigger numbers, McAdams will keep his seat with 47% of the vote to 45% for Owens. But if more Republicans head to the polls, Owens will reclaim the seat for his party with 48% of the vote to 43% for McAdams, according to the pollster’s modeling.
“I don’t pretend for a minute to be able to predict exactly which of these groups are going to shift,” the pollster said. “What I was trying to convey was, when we show a 1-point race, depending on who breaks late, depending on what happens, it is possible to envision Burgess Owens winning not a huge victory, but a comfortable victory. It’s also quite possible to envision McAdams winning.”
Both candidates are now seen more unfavorably by voters than they were in September. McAdams has gone from 36% of voters viewing him unfavorably last month to 47% in the poll, while Owens went from 33% seeing him unfavorably to 42%.
“It looks like there has been some efforts that may have dented McAdams’ favorability ratings a little bit, which would be the natural result of campaigning,” Rasmussen said. “And the better known Owens gets, the more his negatives have gone up as well.”
Millions of dollars are being spent by Republican and Democratic groups in the race, much of it on negative TV ads attacking the candidates. McAdams and Owens are spending big against each other as well, with Owens reporting raising $2.5 million over the past three months, compared to $1.4 million for McAdams.
That money is making a difference, said Jason Perry, Hinckley Institute director.
“A lot of this race has to do with efforts to drive up the unfavorables. That is really where the story is here, is whether or not these negative ads are hitting their mark — and the information suggests that they are,” Perry said, particularly with McAdams in the Republican -leaning district.
Perry said there was a 15 percentage point drop, from 33% to 18%, in the poll among Republicans who have a favorable view of McAdams from September to October, compared to just a 3 percentage point decline, from 7% to 4% among Democrats who see Owens favorably.
The TV commercials against McAdams, which often link him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or make claims about what he did as Salt Lake County mayor, “have taken a toll among Republicans, that group that Ben McAdams needed,” Perry said.
“For this district, it is a very clear formula. You need most of your own party, you need a segment of the other party, and you need a healthy portion of those who don’t identify as Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “In this particular case, the ads are having an effect.”
Rasmussen said the race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden is also having an impact in the 4th District. He said Thursday’s final scheduled presidential debate, as well as national events between now and Election Day, could change some voters’ minds in the congressional race.
“As we’re getting closer to Election Day, both sides are moving into their partisan camp more strongly,” he said, but some could still be shaken by a poor debate performance by their chosen candidate — as some Trump supporters were after the first presidential debate — or news about the coronavirus pandemic or another important issue.
“This race will be affected by the national mood,” Rasmussen said of the 4th District.
Owens spokesman Jesse Ranney said in a statement about the poll that “voters have a clear choice in November, we can continue to have someone in Congress who represents San Francisco or someone who represent Salt Lake. Burgess is a vote for Salt Lake, he will represent our values and be a champion in Congress.”
McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said in a statement: “We’ve always known this would be a close race and Ben is working hard for every vote. Burgess Owens’ extreme views would harm Utahns. Ben is a commonsense, independent voice for Utahns who can be trusted to do the right thing for Utah’s hardworking families and we’re confident his approach and his record will carry the day.”
Later Monday, McAdams’ campaign send out a fundraising email highlighting the poll results, warning supporters it “comes only a few days after we found out Burgess outraised Ben for the first time in this campaign. In a one-point race like this, a fundraising advantage in the final two weeks can make or break our chances to reelect Ben.”