SALT LAKE CITY — The same two gubernatorial candidates — former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — remain the front-runners in the crowded Republican field, but even more voters are undecided, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
In new results released Wednesday, Huntsman is at 26% and Cox 24% among respondents who said they definitely would vote in the GOP primary election set for June. Just under a third of those polled said they weren’t sure who they would choose to be the Republican Party’s nominee.
None of the other five candidates in the race — former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, businessman Jeff Burningham, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and businesswoman Jan Garbett — reached double-digits.
“The political process is just not as big a focus as it might have been,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen, noting the number of Utahns polled who are undecided about who should be the nominee is now larger than those supporting any individual candidate.
In last month’s poll for the Deseret News and the University of Utah institute, 30% were undecided while Huntsman was at 32% and Cox at 20%.
“We have to put this in context of the pandemic. This is not top of mind for most people,” Rasmussen said. “I think the race is very wide open, especially at the top. I think we will start to get a better handle on things when we get closer to the primary and also when we see, bluntly, what the state of the world is like in a month or two.”
Hinckley Institute Director Jason Perry said the deadly virus is having a big impact on the state’s most competitive race.
“There are so many things right now that people are worried about more than this race. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about being able to feed their families. They’re worried about their health,” he said. “That is why we’ve seen a flattening of the numbers for these candidates” and an uptick in those who are undecided.
“That’s a pretty high number,” Perry said of the 32% who are unsure about their choice in the new poll, especially at this point in the election to succeed GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.
Both Perry and Rasmussen said the current situation benefits the candidates with the strongest name recognition among voters — Huntsman as twice-elected governor who ran for president and served as U.S. ambassador to China and then Russia, and Cox as head of the state task force on COVID-19.
“It freezes everything a little bit,” Rasmussen said. “It makes it harder for anybody else to jump into that top tier.”
The latest poll, conducted March 23-28 by Rasmussen, an independent pollster, shows Hughes and Burningham each have the support of 7% of the Republican primary voters, while Wright and Winder Newton were both at 2% and Garbett was at 1%.
The question about the governor’s race was asked of 326 Utahns who said they definitely are going to vote in the closed Republican primary, including 61 Democrats and others who would have to register with the GOP to participate, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4 percentage points.
The poll also found that most Utahns are open to changing the election process because of the new coronavirus pandemic, but are split among options that include postponing the primary election (19%) and putting every candidate on the ballot (21%), even if they don’t qualify by gathering voter signatures or by advancing at the state party convention.
Just 10% said no changes should be made in state elections laws at this point to counter the effects of the new coronavirus on the upcoming primary.
Herbert has already issued an executive order changing the signature-gathering process to get on the ballot to eliminate the need for personal contact. While the order does not permit electronic signatures, candidates are able to send voters a form to sign, then return via email, fax or regular mail.
Cox and Wright already have qualified for the ballot by turning in 28,000 unique GOP voter signatures. Huntsman, who as of Wednesday has more than 18,500 signatures verified, and Garbett, the only candidate not competing to be put on the ballot by party delegates, are continuing to gather voter signatures.
Burningham, Winder Newton and Hughes are vying for the party’s nomination only at the GOP state convention, set to be held virtually on April 25. Up to two candidates can be advanced by Republican delegates to the primary ballot.
Perry said Herbert’s action on signature gathering is a “big first step” and may only be a start.
“It does leave that door open,” he said. “This is a completely unique time and it’s going to call for some unique accommodations. I think we’ve seen the first one already and I know the governor is committed to fairness also. I think that depending on how this goes, it may open up the door for other accommodations.”
What those might be remains to be seen. Lawmakers are expected to be called into a special session of the Legislature soon by the governor to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on the budget and could consider more election changes then.
Huntsman, who suggested recently the state permit electronic signatures, is “working through” the new process despite its limitations and expects to meet the threshold before the mid-April deadline, his campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, said, adding that more could be done.
“We don’t want people’s right to vote in the primary to be another casualty of this pandemic,” Roskelley said.
“We think that to ensure the security of Utahns’ right to vote, they should have as many choices on the primary ballot as possible,” she said. “We would be good if people went to the primary. We would be good if there was an electronic version of a signature that was allowed.”
Burningham and Garbett said the change already made by the governor is unworkable.
“It was cosmetic at best,” said Burningham, who briefly tried the new signature-gathering process before determining it was too many steps for voters. “To say that there should be no change when everything else, every other institution in our lives, has been completely upended the the last three weeks, I think, is ridiculous.”
He said, however, the issue is complicated and a better fix should be left to the governor and lawmakers.
Garbett, who said her campaign isn’t able to do anything more to get signatures than send out letters to voters with self-addressed, stamped envelopes, called for all of the candidates running for governor to be placed on the primary ballot.
“Guess what,” she said. “We all live in a time that’s not fair.”
But Hughes’ campaign manager, Greg Hartley, said their campaign opposes any changes to the primary election process as long as there’s still a way for candidates to get on the ballot. Hartley said because the state party convention will be held virtually, using pre-recorded speeches, that route to the ballot is now more difficult, too.
“We’re all equally harmed in this,” he said.
Hartley said the number of undecided voters in the poll suggests there’s room for another candidate to emerge as the winner in the race despite the challenge posed by Huntsman and Cox. For now, he said, Hughes is focused on winning Republican delegate votes rather than on primary voters.
So is Wright, who said he’ll start reaching out to primary voters after the convention, when they may be more receptive.
“With this talented field of candidates, some with very large name ID, to have a third of people still undecided reflects that they are, in fact, still weighing their options and that they haven’t fully tuned in to the race for governor,” Wright said. “We believe that when they do, we will be there.”
Winder Newton spokesman Danny Laub said “if the election were held tomorrow, ‘Mrs./Mr. Undecided’ would be Utah’s next governor.”
Roskelley had little to say about Huntsman’s latest poll numbers.
“We don’t pay that much attention to polls and we’ve done just fine,” she said. “People are focused on other things, like the coronavirus and their own health, their physical health as well as their financial and mental health, frankly, which are the things the governor is focused on as well.”
Cox’s running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said in a statement, “During this pandemic, Lt. Gov. Cox and I have canceled all TV ads and instead of fundraising, we’ve asked Utahns to give to neighbors in need. His only focus is working with Gov. Herbert to stop the spread of the virus and bring Utah’s economy back to being the best in the nation.”