SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly half of Utah voters back GOP Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in the race for governor, while 17% support Democrat Chris Peterson, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that also found 29% are still undecided.
Cox, a former local elected official and state lawmaker who has served as outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert’s lieutenant governor for nearly seven years, is viewed favorably by more Utahns than Peterson, a University of Utah law professor and first-time candidate.
The poll showed 53% of voters have a favorable opinion of Cox compared to 24% who feel the same about Peterson. Both candidates have a similar number of voters who see them unfavorably — 24% for Cox and 26% for Peterson.
There’s a big gap between the candidates when it comes to name recognition, the poll findings suggest, since 49% of voters said they have no opinion of Peterson and less than half that number, 22%, don’t know what they think about Cox.
The poll was conducted of 1,000 registered Utah voters July 27-Aug. 1 by pollster Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
“I think the fact is, Utah is not going to have a Democratic governor this year. That’s what the poll tells us,” Rasmussen said. It’s been 40 years since a Democratic gubernatorial candidate has won in Utah, when voters gave then-Gov. Scott Matheson a second term in 1980.
While there’s room for the race to get closer, Rasmussen said, “it’s very difficult for me to see the dynamic where you have a Democratic governor. You know, things can always emerge about candidates. Things can happen. But it would have to be pretty dramatic.”
Jason Perry, Hinckley Institute director, said the race is looking good for Cox.
“Spencer Cox is in a great position going into November. This is a big lead for where we are in the election cycle,” said Perry, who has held key posts under two GOP governors. “I think it may narrow somewhat but this is historically a race that goes to the Republican in Utah.”
But that doesn’t mean Cox can take it easy between now and November, after winning the hard-fought June 30 Republican gubernatorial primary over former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
“He cannot coast to the end. That is a reality also. Even though Spencer Cox has a considerable lead, he needs to still stay engaged in this election. I’m sure that he will,” Perry said. “If it’s perceived that he’s taken it for granted, that will come as a negative for him as well.”
Utahns are still paying attention to the governor’s race, he added, because they “continue to be exceptionally interested in the state’s response to the pandemic and they will be looking to Spencer Cox to help provide that leadership.”
Cox, who played a high-profile role in the state’s efforts against COVID-19 until his primary election opponents accused him of politicizing the pandemic, could once again take center stage as work continues to combat the virus and rebuild the economy.
Rasmussen said the number of undecided voters in the race at this point is not “terribly significant” because although there may be a few disgruntled GOP primary voters trying to decide what to do, he believes “a lot of these ‘not sures’ will drop out” in future polls of likely voters rather than simply registered voters.
Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson said a broader set of registered voters were polled “providing a wider view on issues like the pandemic and race. Post Labor Day polling shifts to ‘likely’ voters revealing more insight on partisan matchups heading toward November.”
Cox’s campaign has made it clear the general election race won’t get underway for them until after the Labor Day holiday in early September, traditionally seen as when voters are ready to pay attention to politics because summer vacation is over and school is back in session.
“We are very encouraged by these initial numbers,” the lieutenant governor said in a statement. “While my No. 1 priority is to continue working closely with Gov. Herbert on the COVID-19 response, I am looking forward to the upcoming campaign season to articulate my vision for Utah’s future.”
Peterson said the race remains competitive because voters are ready for a change.
“We have polling suggesting our campaign has 27% support if the vote were held today. And we believe the momentum is on our side. In only four months we went from low, single-digit name recognition to 51%,” he said, predicting the race will “tighten” by Election Day.
“Voters are tired of elected officials not listening to them,” Peterson said.
The 2018 passage of a trio of ballot initiatives — legalizing medical marijuana, establishing an independent redistricting commission to redraw boundaries for elected offices and accepting federal Medicaid expansion — as well as the successful fight against a controversial tax reform package, prove his point, Peterson said.
Voters haven’t had a chance to see Cox and Peterson together yet. A planned Rotary Club debate between the major-party gubernatorial candidates was called off after Cox failed to respond to an invitation. His campaign has, however, committed to a debate before the election.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said that’s making it hard for voters to get to know Peterson.
“Since the Republican primary, Spencer Cox has essentially been unseen. He’s been unwilling to debate Chris Peterson. He’s been unwilling to engage with him so it’s not unreasonable to see these numbers,” Merchant said, adding that Peterson will “certainly do better” than the poll suggests.
While some voters won’t like Peterson because of the “D” behind his name, the state party leader said once the candidate becomes a more familiar face, voters will realize “he’s a pretty nice guy, a likable guy. Just like I think Spencer Cox probably is. I mean, he comes across as a nice individual.”