SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump holds a sizable lead over former Vice President Joe Biden in Utah, a Republican-dominated state where most voters believe they’re better off since he was elected but the country is not, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
The Republican president leads his Democratic challenger 53% to 35% among likely Utah voters in poll results released Wednesday. Just 6% said they aren’t sure who they would vote for if the November presidential election were held today, and only 6% favored other candidates on the ballot.
Even more Utahns agree they’re doing better than they were four years ago — 56% — compared to 34% who disagree and 10% who aren’t sure.
But Utahns don’t feel the same about how the United States has fared since 2016. Half say the country is not better off, while 42% say it is and 8% aren’t sure.
The poll was conducted by pollster Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics Sept. 7-12 of 1,000 likely Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
“For most people in Utah, the current experience is, ‘We’re doing OK, but when I look at what’s happening in the country, look at where it’s going and think about what it means for the future, for the next generation, there’s a lot of problems out there,’” Rasmussen said. “They’re troubled. They’re concerned.”
Who gets the blame differs depending on their political tilt, he said.
“Some people would say by definition, because Donald Trump is president, the country is worse off,” Rasmussen said, likely including the 90% of Utah Democrats polled who say the United States was doing better four years ago. “Some would say there’s violence in the states being perpetrated by people who hate America.”
The president shouldn’t get all the credit for the much more positive view Utahns have of their own situation, he said.
“I’m not sure it’s a conscious thought. It’s not, ‘Huh. I’m better off. Donald Trump is doing a good job. Thank you, President Trump,’” the pollster said. “I believe, especially in a Republican leaning state, there are people who feel better off simply because they feel they’re being heard a little bit more than they were four years ago.”
A majority of Utahns — 56% — approve of Trump’s job performance overall as well as how he’s handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The same number of Utahns, 43%, disapprove of both the president’s job performance overall and how he has dealt with the deadly outbreak.
The impacts of the novel coronavirus also top the list of issues Utahns care about in the presidential race, with the economy deemed the most important by 39%, followed by COVID-19 at 21%. Health care was the pick of 12%; federal judicial appointments, 11%; Second Amendment issues, 7%; abortion, 4%, political party, 4%; and other, 2%.
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the key to understanding the level of support for Trump in the state is in how Utahns are responding to issues surrounding the pandemic, such as mandates in some places that masks be worn to prevent the spread of the virus that have sparked high-profile protests.
When it comes to the coronavirus, “the shared concern has not led to a shared approach. It has divided people and not brought them together,” he said. “From the masks to their kids going to school to the vaccine, every single aspect of our lives right now is being run through a political filter and people are being forced to pick a side.”
In Utah, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, that’s the GOP. As a result, Trump “is not catching the blame, or the entire amount of the blame” for how Utahns view the nation, Perry said, although he noted the president’s numbers are not as high as might be expected for a Republican presidential candidate.
Nationally, Trump is trailing Biden 49% to 43.1%, according to an average of key polling from around the country compiled by Real Clear Politics. Trump took Utah in 2016 with 45.5% of the vote, his lowest level of support in any of the states he won.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, suggested Utahns not seeing the country as better off during Trump’s first term should set off alarm bells for his campaign given that the state is a Republican stronghold.
“Presidential votes are a referendum not only on the performance of the incumbent but the general state of the nation. I think that is at least some recognition that the nation is experiencing significant difficulties right now,” Karpowitz said, even if voters feel good about their own situation.
“That does not bode well nationwide for the incumbent president. Again, we’re a very red state. Republicans heavily outnumber Democrats and independents,” he said. “In a different environment with a slightly different mix of voters, those sorts of judgments could be seriously damaging to an incumbent.”
Utah, though, may still give Trump another win in November because “the partisan label really does matter for a large number of voters,” the political science professor said. But even if “Utah’s a comfortable victory for the Trump campaign, there’s enough warning signs, if they’re showing up here in Utah ... there’s cause for some worry.”
Longtime Utah Trump supporter Don Peay said the president’s support in the state has grown since 2016 and will get a boost from new endorsements in the coming weeks that will include BYU athletes and business leaders. He declined to be more specific.
“Instead of just being passive, they’re going to be vocal, outspoken supporters of the president. So in terminology, Trump has converted a lot of Utah people because of his actions and results,” Peay said. “Their coming out, if you will, is representative of how people feel.”
He said Utahns who back Trump see Biden as “a straw man” for the agenda of the radical left. He said Utahns believe the country is not better off because of the policies of Democratic-run cities and states and don’t blame Trump. In places with “a conservative-based lifestyle, people are pretty happy,” Peay said.
Scott Howell, a former Democratic Utah Senate leader and surrogate for Biden, said he believes the poll shows that the controversies surrounding the pandemic have helped energize the extreme wing of the Republican Party in Utah.
He said Trump should be seen as “failing” because most Utahns see the country as not improving during his time in office.
“We are continuing to pivot to the positive. We’re not out attacking,” Howell said, adding the campaign can’t keep up with the demand for Biden yard signs.
“I’m not giving up hope at all.”