Could Jim Matheson have beaten Orrin Hatch?

Matheson does not have as much appeal statewide as in the fourth district

This analysis was performed by Robert Richards, a student research fellow at BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (“like” CSED on Facebook), in collaboration with CSED faculty. The writing is mostly his. Inquiries about this research should come to Adam Brown or Quin Monson.

After the 2011 redistricting in Utah, Representative Jim Matheson had an important decision to make. Should he run in the new fourth district, where more of his former constituents lived, or in the second district, where he currently resides? Or should he set his sights on statewide office and challenge either Orrin Hatch or Gary Herbert? Matheson chose the fourth district, but what if he had chosen one of the other three options?

On the Utah Colleges Exit Poll, we asked voters statewide how they would have voted in a hypothetical Hatch/Matheson Senate race. The table below shows the outcome of our hypothetical Senate election, in which Orrin Hatch wins quite handily among this year’s voters.1

If the contest for U.S. Senate had been between Orrin Hatch, Republican, against Jim Matheson, Democrat, who would you have voted for?
Orrin Hatch 55%
Jim Matheson 34%
Someone else 6%
Don’t know 6%

So what would Jim Matheson have to do to win statewide office in this scenario? The graph below shows the partisan breakdown of his winning coalition of voters in the fourth district, compared to the partisan breakdown of those who said they would have voted for him in a Senate election against Senator Hatch. The largest gap between the two lines is in the category of weak Republicans and independents who lean Republican. Matheson has won for a decade in Republican-majority districts by persuading these less-committed Republicans to cross party lines and vote for him (including this year). Matheson does not have as much appeal statewide as in the fourth district, though. This is the gap Matheson would have to focus on closing to win a statewide election.

Percent of voters (by partisanship) who would support Jim Matheson over Orrin Hatch in a hypothetical Senate race

Keep in mind that the fourth district results shown above are for that district only. Assembling a similar winning coalition for a Senate campaign would have to be done statewide. Weak and independent Republicans throughout the rest of the state may not be as friendly to Matheson as the ones in his district.2

Still, the graph above suggests that Matheson could have been within striking distance of taking Orrin Hatch’s Senate seat. He has proven that he can overcome strong Republican challenges in two different House districts. Unless an actual Matheson statewide campaign becomes a reality, this question must remain hypothetical. But that doesn’t mean researchers and political junkies can’t wonder.

Methodological Note

The Utah Colleges Exit Poll was conducted on Election Day 2012 by student volunteers from various colleges and universities in the state of Utah. The question used in this analysis appeared on one of the statewide forms. Data was weighted according to the sampling design. You can read further details about the exit poll in a previous post.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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One Response to Could Jim Matheson have beaten Orrin Hatch?

  1. utah_1 says:

    Okthe 4th district might have more voters from 10 years ago. I am remembering the old 2nd has more of the save voters with the new 2nd including a big area of SLC and Washinton County than the new 4th.

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