Should we invite them to the party?

Fifty-six percent say that political parties are public institutions and can be regulated by the state, while 44% say that they are private associations and cannot be regulated.

The author would like to thank Professors Mike Barber and Chris Karpowitz for advice and assistance they provided with this blog.  In the spirit of full disclosure, the author of this blog has also done some polling work for Count My Vote in the past.

Political parties have a complicated history in American politics. Several founding fathers disdained them because they feared the effects of conflict. However, as the nation developed a routinized politics, the founding fathers lost their dread and became founders of our two-party system.

As the American political system developed, the question shifted from whether or not we would have a party system to who would control the political parties. Elected officials, party administrators, and rank-and-file members competed for control. These separate entities today all claim a share of a party’s identity and structure.

The Republican Party administrators in Utah have re-energized the tensions that naturally exist between these entities. They have asserted a right to dictate rules to select candidates, a decision that puts them at odds with the compromises, legal and political, that party administrators, voters, and elected officials have negotiated over the last two centuries. A compromise that, according to one political scientist, assigns political parties a status akin to a “public utility.”

The question, once again, at issue is really who controls the parties. While party officials are quick to claim control, rank-and-file voters do not believe that control is exclusive. In the February Utah Voter Poll we asked, “Which statement comes closest to your view? Political parties are private associations and cannot be regulated by the state or Political parties are public institutions and can be regulated by the state.”

Fifty-six percent say that political parties are public institutions and can be regulated by the state, while 44% say that they are private associations and cannot be regulated.

Public's View on Political Parties

As expected, significant differences exist between the parties. Indeed, there is almost a monotonic effect as the scale moves from a “Strong Democrat” to a “Strong Republican.” Eighty-two percent of those who identify as “strong Democrats” express the opinion that parties are public institutions, whereas only 35% of the “strong Republicans” do so.

View of Political Party by Party Affiliation

And of course, the pure independents (those who choose not to identify with any party) find themselves right between the two parties, but more likely to choose the “public institution” category.

The findings raise an interesting question: is it the ideology of the party or is it institutional self-interest that explains the pattern? For example, do Republicans view the party as a private association because they normally oppose government regulations or because they think it will dilute the significant advantage the party enjoys in the state? The same calculus applies to the Democrats, but only in reverse. Do they favor regulation of the parties because that is what Democrats conventionally believe or because they think it will make it possible for them to finally compete politically in the state?

The February UVP asked a question that may point toward an answer. The question provided a choice where individuals could choose between an advantage enjoyed by the major parties and a concept related to election administration: ballot access. The question asks: “State law says that political parties need to receive a certain level of support from voters before their candidates can appear on the election ballot. Some say that this gives an unfair advantage to the two major political parties (Republicans and Democrats). Others say it keeps the election ballot from becoming too cluttered with candidates. Which position comes closest to your view?”

Fifty-six percent say that “all parties should receive access to the ballot,” and 44% say, “Only parties that receive a certain level of support should be on the ballot.” The proportions are identical to the “public institutions/private associations” question.

Access to Ballot

However, the partisan distributions differ noticeably. Support for ballot access remains relatively stable across all categories for Democrats and even fairly high for the Independents who lean Republican. Only the “not so strong Republicans” and “strong Republicans” have a majority who want restrictions on ballot access.

Access to Ballot by Party Affiliation

If the major political parties were motivated solely by their concerns about regulation, we would not have expected this pattern. What seems clear is that the “strong Republicans” respond to these two questions as if they know they have the most to gain by preserving the status quo.

As a test of this idea, I combined those individuals who answered “only parties that receive a certain level” and “parties are private associations” into one category. I am interested in the characteristics of the individuals who would choose those two options as opposed to the other combinations. Selection of those two choices seems to indicate a preference for preserving advantages. I use a probit model to estimate the probability of selecting that combination of options as opposed to the other combinations.

The figure below displays the probability of selecting both of the options described above by the different partisan categories. The individuals most likely to choose both categories are the “strong republicans.” Democrats are also quite different from all categories of Republicans.  But the figure essentially shows that the “strong Republicans” have a much higher likelihood of choosing both response categories that preserve the advantages they currently enjoy in the state.

Party Identification Predictions

Political parties have an interesting relationship with the American republic. They are private associations that engage in a highly public activity that is subsidized by the state (e.g. cost of elections, ballot access). The parties help to organize elections, but the Constitution gives control of elections to the states. And perhaps it is that tension which made the founding fathers both fear and embrace them.

About Kelly Patterson: Kelly Patterson is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

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What do Mike Lee and Elizabeth Warren have in common?

Senator Lee has the distinction of being the most ideologically extreme senator in the 113th Congress.

At first glance, it may seem as though Utah’s Tea Party Senator, Mike Lee, and Massachusetts’ liberal firebrand, Elizabeth Warren, may not have much in common. In terms of policy, they disagree on almost everything. However, there is one area in which the two are quite similar. Lee and Warren share the distinction of being the most ideologically extreme senators in their respective parties.

How do we measure the ideological positions of senators? Political scientists often use a measure of legislators’ ideology called NOMINATE (Nominal, Three-Step, Estimation) scores. These scores are based on the roll-call votes cast by legislators and condense the thousands of votes cast in the House and Senate into a single score representing a legislator’s typical ideology. The scores range from -1 to 1 with lower values indicating more liberal voting while positive scores indicate more conservative voting records. Using this measure, Lee scored a .991 in the 113th Congress while Warren scored -.622. There were no senators with scores larger than Lee’s or smaller than Warren’s. The chart below shows a histogram of senators’ ideology scores and notes Lee and Warren’s scores at the ideological extremes.

Warren and Lee are their party's most extreme members

Another way of thinking about a legislator’s ideology is to consider how far she is from the typical legislator in her party. By this measure, Lee was .56 from the median Republican (the median Republican senator’s score in the 113th Congress was .43) while Warren was .29 from the median Democrat (the median Democratic senator’s score in the 113th Congress was -.33). Using this measure, Senator Lee has the distinction of being the most ideologically extreme senator in the 113th Congress.

Given that this blog focuses on Utah politics, lets take some time to consider Senator Lee’s ideology score in greater detail. One reason that Lee could appear so far from the typical Republican senator is that he is voting in line with his constituents (Utah voters), who are also more conservative than the typical American voter. To investigate this possibility, I plot the average ideological position of each state’s voters as measured in a large nationwide survey in 2010 (the year Lee was first elected to office) and each Republican senator’s ideology score. The vertical axis shows Republican senators’ ideology scores from the most moderate Republicans (Collins from Maine) to the most conservative (Lee). The horizontal axis shows the average ideology of each state’s electorate from moderate (South Dakota) to conservative (Louisiana). The two arrows point to Senators Lee and Hatch.

Senator Ideology and Voter Ideology

The figure shows that Lee’s conservative voting record is not necessarily because of Utah voters’ policy preferences. Orrin Hatch, who represents the exact same voters as Lee, has a much more moderate voting record (he is lower on the vertical axis). Furthermore, states like Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Alabama have more conservative voters (larger values on the horizontal axis) but their senators have acquired voting records that are more moderate than Lee’s.

Let’s also consider Lee’s voting record in the context of other Utah politicians. The figure below shows the ideological locations of 7 of the last 8 people to serve in the House and Senate from Utah. Mia Love is not shown because she has yet to acquire a voting record. Lee is by far the most conservative of the bunch.

Ideology of Recent Utah Legislators

How does Lee’s voting record compare to other legislators from Utah? For a more historical picture, the histogram below shows the ideological scores for all 49 representatives and senators who have served from Utah since Utah became a state in 1896. Again, Lee stands out among his Utah colleagues as the most conservative member of the Utah delegation ever.

Ideologies of All Utah Legislators

Does any of this matter for the upcoming 2016 election? Because of Utah’s conservative electorate, it is unlikely that Lee would lose to a Democrat in November. However, given the recent changes to Utah’s caucus and primary system, it is possible that he could face a difficult and expensive primary challenge in 2016. Political science research suggests that legislators who are “out of step” with the ideology of their voters are more likely to face challenges in the primary and general elections.

To investigate this possibility, I first use a statistical model to predict the relationship between a Republican senator’s primary electorate and her ideology score. I then measure the degree to which the actual values from the data deviate from the model’s prediction. The distance between the data and the model prediction gives us a rough estimate of how “out of step” a legislator is from her primary electorate. Positive deviations indicate legislators who are more conservative than their primary electorate. Negative deviations indicate legislators who are more liberal than their primary electorate.

The figure below shows that Lee has the largest deviation score of any Republican senator in the Senate today. Furthermore, the deviation score is positive, indicating that Lee is more conservative than we would expect from the composition of the Republican primary electorate in Utah. This is unusual since we expect candidates to strategically position themselves between an ideologically extreme primary electorate and a more moderate general electorate. Consequently, Lee is vulnerable to a moderate challenger in a primary election.

Legislator Ideology and Primary Electorate


About Michael Barber: Michael Barber 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. He studies legislative politics in the United States. More of his research is available at

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“And then depression set in:” Why don’t Utahns turn out to vote?

When we asked respondents to the recent UVP why they believed individuals did not turn out to vote, the overwhelming reason related to one-party dominance.

Professors Quin Monson and Michael Barber contributed to this post.

In the movie “Stripes,” Bill Murray plays a down on his luck cab driver named John Winger. When his girlfriend walks out on him, he utters the phrase, “and then depression set in.”

American democracy seems to be getting to that point. Turnout by some estimates was the worst in seven decades.  Utah was no exception to the depressing news. Our colleague, Adam Brown, summarized the turnout in Utah in a recent Utah Data Points post.

Describing the trend does not necessarily explain it. We want to know what factors contribute to the decline in turnout. Some have looked for institutional explanations such as voter identification laws. However, Utah’s turnout decline began before the adoption of stricter voter id laws. Furthermore, Utah has liberalized absentee and vote-by-mail options, features that should help arrest the decline in turnout. Consequently, institutional explanations do not seem to provide convincing answers.

We think the explanation resides in a rather toxic mix of lack of competitiveness and citizen commitment. It is no secret that Utah is a one-party state. The lack of competitiveness gives individuals few incentives to turnout when the results appear foreordained. Voters think this perception matters. When we asked respondents to the recent UVP why they believed individuals did not turn out to vote, the overwhelming reason related to one-party dominance. The question was “In this last election in Utah, only about 30% of people who are eligible to vote actually voted. In your view, what is the most important reason why voter turnout in Utah is so low?”

Why Not Vote?The figure shows that most individuals believed that the lack of competitiveness resulted in a reduced desire to vote. None of the other choices come even close to this one single reason for not voting. Apathy, too busy, or an inability to navigate the difficulties of registering and getting out to the polls all lag far behind as explanations offered up by habitual voters as reasons for not voting.  Now the UVP is mostly made up of voters, so we are essentially asking voters why they think nonvoters do not vote, but the distribution of answers is certainly instructive.

The depressing effect of lack of competitiveness does not affect everybody equally. We expect that some individuals will be better equipped to shrug off its effects than others. Some individuals will see voting as a “duty.” Duty has often been a predictor of turnout, but it does not receive the same attention as other psychological orientations or as much attention as preference about who wins the election.  However, as Blais and Achen point out, both duty and preference matter, a lot.

The question for Utah is whether or not there is a “duty” gap. Returning to the November post-election UVP, we asked voters whether or not they saw voting “mainly as a duty or a choice.” We then followed up asking how strongly they saw that selection.

The dots in the figure below indicate that some individuals are much more likely to believe that voting is more strongly a duty than others. The lines represent confidence intervals—where the lines overlap, we cannot be certain that the differences are statistically different. What we see however is that those who have a favorable impression of the Tea Party and conservatives view voting more strongly as a duty.

Intriguingly, individuals who express religious preferences are more likely to express a sense of duty when it comes to voting than those without a religion, although the small number of individuals without a religion in the sample means that the confidence intervals are large.

Duty Blog FigureWhen we put all of these factors into a multivariate model (a logistic regression equation that predicts choosing the category of “strongly duty.”), we see that having a favorable impression of the Tea Party and being a conservative positively predict whether a person sees voting as a duty. After controlling for these factors, being Republican or having no religious preference negatively predict whether a person sees voting as a duty (p < .1).

These results only hint at what we think may ail turnout in Utah, but they are worth further exploration.  As Achen and Blais state, “some people construe voting in ethical terms, and that those who do so are more likely to vote and also less inclined to pay attention to non-ethical considerations.” What “non-ethical considerations” mean is the lack of competitiveness and the resulting lack of choices that voters routinely face in Utah.  And the individuals who need to struggle the most with these “non-ethical considerations” to improve Utah’s poor turnout record are probably those who are least likely to hear from some source they consider authoritative that it is their “duty” to vote.

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Pretty much nobody likes the Zion Curtain

Democrats (81%), Republicans (51%), Mormons (51%), other religious adherents (87%), and the non-religious (99%) all agree that restaurants should be allowed to remove these barriers.

Utah law requires restaurants to prepare alcoholic drinks out of sight of customers, either in a separate room or behind a 7-foot tall visual barrier.1 The barrier is routinely derided as the “Zion curtain.” Utah legislators considered a proposal to eliminate this requirement in last year’s legislative session, but the proposal faltered. Because legislators will almost certainly consider the matter again this winter, I included several questions about it in the November 2014 Utah Voter Poll.

The punchline: Democrats (81%), Republicans (51%), Mormons (51%), other religious adherents (87%), and the non-religious (99%) all agree that restaurants should be allowed to remove these barriers. Overall, 63% of Utahns support removal, while only 17% oppose it. (There is a squishy middle of 20% that takes no side.)

This finding of 63% overall support for removal almost exactly mirrors the 62% reported a month ago in a Dan Jones poll commissioned by UtahPolicy (see writeup 1 and writeup 2). To have such agreement across polls that used different question wording and different sampling methods is remarkable.

But the real fun comes in the details, so keep reading. We didn’t just ask about support for removing the barriers; we also asked some additional questions that reveal some surprises about voter attitudes.

The context: The November 2014 Utah Voter Poll

I included several questions about Utah’s alcohol barriers in the post-election wave of the Utah Voter Poll. Respondents are voters recruited into the panel through traditional random sampling techniques during past waves of the Utah Colleges Exit Poll. Details about the poll methodology are available in the November 2014 topline report. The poll is administered by BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The questions reported here were only one small part of the November poll. For complete question wording, view the topline report.

Utahns don’t believe the barriers make a difference

After providing a brief explanation of current law regarding these barriers (available in the topline), I began by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with the common justifications given for these barriers. Using a five-point scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree), respondents indicated their agreement with each of the following four statements:

  • Erecting these barriers has decreased alcohol consumption.
  • Removing these barriers would increase alcohol consumption.
  • Erecting these barriers has helped parents teach their children to make wise choices about alcohol.
  • Removing these barriers would help parents teach their children to make wise choices about alcohol.

Respondents overwhelmingly rejected the first three statements, though they show some ambivalence about the fourth; a substantial minority of Utahns believe that removing the barriers would help them teach their children about alcohol.

First I’ll give overall results. To keep the table readable, I abbreviate question wording here, and I combine “strongly agree” with “somewhat agree” into a single “agree” category (likewise for “disagree”). The neutral category, not reported here, hovers in the 20-30% range.

Agree % Disagree %
Barriers decrease drinking 9 69
Removal would increase drinking 15 67
Barriers help parents teach 11 68
Removal would help parents teach 31 35

The next table reports results by partisan and religious subgroups. In the interest of space, I report only the percentage who agree (either “strongly” or “somewhat”) in this table. All these subgroups join in rejecting the first three statements. On the fourth, Republicans and Mormons are less likely than others to believe that removing the barriers would help them teach their children about alcohol. Regardless, Republicans and Mormons join the other groups in believing that the barriers haven’t helped them teach their children in the past.

Dem GOP LDS Other religion No religion
Barriers decrease drinking 8 10 10 12 3
Removal would increase drinking 11 17 17 14 4
Barriers help parents teach 9 11 13 8 1
Removal would help parents teach 41 24 27 41 42

Utahns prefer to eliminate the barriers

I next asked respondents to evaluate the following three policy alternatives using the same five-point scale as before, except agree/disagree became support/oppose:

  • Allow restaurants to remove these barriers and prepare alcohol within sight of customers.
  • Allow restaurants to remove these barriers if they post a sign at the door advising patrons that alcohol is prepared within sight of customers.
  • Change nothing; continue to require these barriers.

The first two proposals have been the subject of actual bills in recent legislative sessions. Overall, Utah voters prefer simply eliminating the barriers, though they prefer either reform to the status quo. Once again, 20-30% of respondents are neutral on each proposal.

Support % Oppose %
Allow removal of barriers 63 17
Allow removal with notices 43 25
Change nothing; keep barriers 16 64

All partisan and religious subgroups support allowing restaurants to remove the barriers. Among Democrats, the non-religious, and non-Mormon religious adherents, support is extremely strong (above 80%) for removing the barriers. Though only 51% of Republicans and 51% of Mormons support removing the barriers, only 24% of Republicans and 23% of Mormons oppose this change; the rest are neutral. Even among Republicans and Mormons, then, there is a 2-1 margin in favor of eliminating the barriers.

Dem GOP LDS Other religion No religion
Allow removal of barriers 81 51 51 87 99
Allow removal with notices 43 43 44 37 44
Change nothing; keep barriers 8 20 20 7 1

Incidentally, the survey also included a little experiment. Half the survey respondents saw these barriers referred to as the “Zion curtain”; the rest did not see that term. The questions were otherwise identical. Polling research often finds that including this sort of critical language can influence the results, especially when respondents’ opinions are weakly formed. In this case, though, it turns out that including the critical term “Zion curtain” had no effect on the results. Those who saw the critical epithet provided similar answers to the questions as those who did not. The resilience of these results to this wording shift suggests that voters attitudes on this issue are relatively well-formed.

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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Update: The 2015 Legislature will be Utah’s 2nd most Republican since the Depression

The 2015 Legislature has the second largest Republican majority in 88 years, since the 96.8% majority of 1927.

Two weeks ago, preliminary results showed Democrats picking up one seat in the Utah House and holding steady in the Utah Senate. At the time, I wrote that this change would give us the 3rd most Republican Legislature since the Depression.

Now that provisional and absentee ballots have been counted, though, three seats in the Utah House that appeared initially to have been won by Democrats were actually won by Republicans. That means Republicans are up a net of two sets in the House and steady in the Senate. And that means we now have the 2nd most Republican Legislature since the Depression.

The chart below shows the trend since statehood. Utah’s Legislature experienced a genuinely competitive period from the 1940s through 1970s. Republicans have dominated the Legislature since that time. Though Democrats made some inroads in the 1990s, Republicans have gained seats for three straight elections–2008, 2010, and 2012.

Republican control of the Legislature, 1897-2015

Republican control of the Legislature, 1897-2015

The end result: In 2015, the Utah House will be 84% Republican and the Utah Senate will be 83% Republican. Overall, 83.7% of legislators are Republican. Let’s put that in perspective a few ways.

Putting the 2015 Utah House into perspective

  • The 2015 Utah House has a larger Republican majority (63 Representatives) than at any time since 1973, when the House was increased to its current size (75 seats).
  • In percentage terms, the 2015 Utah House has the largest Republican majority in 48 years, larger than any session since the 59-10 majority (85.5% of seats) in 1967.
  • The 2015 Utah House has the second largest Republican majority in 88 years, larger than any session (other than 1967) since the 49-6 (89%) majority of 1927.
  • The 2015 Utah House has the sixth largest Republican majority since statehood, following 1921 (98%), 1909 (96%), 1905 (91%), 1927 (89%), and 1967 (86%).

Putting the 2015 Utah Senate into perspective

Neither party gained seats in this year’s Senate elections. Like last year, Republicans hold a 24-5 (83%) Senate majority. But let’s put that into historical perspective:

  • The 2015 Utah Senate ties with the 2013 and 1985 Utah Senates for the largest Republican majority (83%) since 1973, when the Senate reached its current size (29 seats).
  • The 2015, 2013, and 1985 Utah Senates are also in a three-way tie for the largest Republican majority since the 95% Republican majority seen consecutively in the 1923, 1925, and 1927 Utah Senates.

Putting the combined 2015 Utah Legislature into perspective

Overall, 87 of 104 (83.7%) Utah legislators are Republican. Perspective:

  • The 2015 Legislature has the largest Republican majority (83.7%) since 1973, when both chambers reached their current sizes.
  • The 2015 Legislature has the largest Republican majority in 48 years, since the 84.5% majority of 1967.
  • The 2015 Legislature has the second largest Republican majority in 88 years, since the 96.8% majority of 1927.

What will happen next time?

Democrats may have hit rock bottom. For the most part, they have been reduced only to districts that are near-unwinnable for Republicans. The most obvious exception is Price’s House District 69, which flipped from Republican to Democratic in this year’s lone bright spot for Democrats, but which could easily flip back in 2016. Apart from that one seat, there probably aren’t many more opportunities for Republicans to pick up more seats in 2016.

Most of the competitive districts around the periphery of Salt Lake’s Democratic core have been taken by Republicans in the past couple elections. Since competitive districts are now mostly held by Republicans, Democrats have the opportunity in 2016 to regain some ground–but only if they field capable candidates and get their party organization firing on all cylinders.

But before Democrats fantasize too much about regaining seats in 2016, they should remember how much worse it has been for them in the past. Since statehood, 1 in 6 elections has produced an even stronger Republican majority than we’ll see in 2015.1 And Republicans have controlled 100% of Utah Senate seats more than once. Complacency will get Democrats nowhere in 2016.

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Voter turnout in Utah just got worse

In 2014, Utah was one of only 4 states with turnout below 29%.

This post is based on preliminary turnout figures from the various states. These findings may need to be revised as provisional and absentee ballots are counted nationwide.

Nationally, last week’s elections witnessed the lowest midterm election turnout in seven decades. As bad as things were nationwide, though, they were even worse in Utah.

Though Utah’s turnout numbers may rise modestly as the last few absentee ballots are counted, it appears that Utah just experienced one of its worst showings in decades for an even-year election. More and more, it seems that Utahns are giving up on voting.

So far, 494,289 ballots were cast in Utah’s only statewide race, the attorney general election. Adding up all the ballots cast in Utah’s four Congressional races produces a similar figure (496,308 ballots). If we suppose that the remaining absentee ballots will bring the total figure up to 550,000, that would give Utah a 28.8% turnout rate for 2014.

How I calculate turnout

Let’s be clear about the math. Utah’s election administrators generally report turnout as a percentage of “active” registered voters. Because Utah’s voter roll lists 1,252,669 “active” registered voters, their method would report 550,000 ballots as 44% turnout. Not bad, right? A 44% rate certainly sounds better than 29%. For election administrators interested in reaching already-registered voters, this method of calculating turnout may make sense. But if we want to use turnout as an indicator of democratic health, we need another measure.

So how am I arriving at a 29% turnout figure? Political scientists calculate turnout as the percentage of eligible voters in a state. We routinely abbreviate “voter-eligible population” as VEP. In most states, “eligible” means you are at least 18, a citizen, and not currently incarcerated. The gold-standard 50-state data series on VEP turnout is maintained by Michael P. McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. I use his data throughout this post, including his estimates of 2014 turnout rates, which may change modestly in coming weeks as outstanding absentee ballots are counted nationwide.

Just how bad was Utah’s turnout in 2014?

Take a look at the figure below. For each even-numbered election year, the large red dot shows Utah’s VEP turnout rate. The small blue dots show turnout in the other states. In every state, the turnout rate goes up in presidential years and down in midterm years; this isn’t surprising. What is remarkable, though, is Utah’s decline relative to other states. During the 1980s, Utah routinely had above-average turnout. Since the late 1990s, Utah has routinely had below-average turnout. In 2014, Utah was one of only 4 states with turnout below 29%. (The others were Indiana, New York, and Texas.)

Turnout, 1980-2014 - Utah (red) vs other states (blue)

Turnout, 1980-2014 – Utah (red) vs other states (blue)

This next figure makes Utah’s decline even more apparent. For each even-numbered year, this chart depicts the difference between Utah’s turnout rate and the nation’s average turnout rate. From 1980 through 1992, the difference was positive, meaning that Utah’s turnout rate was higher than the national average. In 1994, Utah sat a mere 0.4 percentage points above the national average. Since 1996, Utah’s turnout rate has consistently been below the national average.

Turnout 1980-2014 - Utah vs the national average

Turnout 1980-2014 – Utah vs the national average

Utah’s turnout improved somewhat in 2012, with Utah only 2.8 percentage points behind the national average. Perhaps Romney’s local popularity boosted turnout. But Utahns made up for their improved showing in 2012 by staying home in 2014. In 2014, Utah’s turnout rate was around 7.5 percentage points below the nation’s average. Though this figure will shift somewhat when final vote counts come out, it is unlikely to move by more than a trivial amount.

Why is Utah’s turnout falling?

Past posts have considered three possible explanations for Utah’s declining voter turnout, two of which seem to be supported by the evidence.

First, Utah witnessed genuine partisan competitiveness from the 1930s through the 1970s. During this time, elections routinely swung control of the Utah Legislature or of the governor’s mansion. And during this time, voter turnout was high. The Republican lock on Utah dates to the early 1980s and has strengthened in recent years. If voters feel that elections are foregone, they may feel less motivated to register and to vote. Such an attitude is unfortunate; even if the partisan races are foregone (which is not always true), there are ballot initiatives and non-partisan races to consider. See this post from 2012 for more analysis of whether uncompetitive elections hurt Utah’s turnout.

Second, Utah had no marquee race at the top of the ballot this year. Over the past half-century, many states have migrated toward holding their gubernatorial elections in midterm years to get them out of the shadow of presidential politics. Last week, 36 states had gubernatorial races.1 In addition, 34 states had US Senate races. Utah was one of only five states with neither marquee race on the ballot this year. (The others were Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington.) One way for Utah to boost midterm-year turnout would be to move gubernatorial elections to midterm years. See this post from 2010 for details. In a nutshell, we could expect this reform to provide a permanent 6.7% boost to midterm-year turnout.

Third, some have suggested that Utah’s turnout is low because it has so many young people, and young people are less likely to turn out. Though it’s true that Utah has a younger than average population, see this post from 2010 to see why we can’t blame young people for Utah’s declining turnout.

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Senator Lee Rebounds

Compared to one year ago, our October 2014 UVP shows a substantial change in voters’ views about the senator. Overall, favorability toward Senator Lee has now nearly returned to its pre-shutdown levels.

These are heady days for Senate Republicans.  With a wave of electoral victories across the country, they have taken control from the Democrats, meaning that Republicans like Orrin Hatch will be assuming important and powerful positions, such as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.  When it comes to governing choices, the relationship between more establishment Republicans like Senator Hatch or Mitch McConnell, on the one hand, and reform conservatives like Ted Cruz or Utah’s own Mike Lee, on the other, will also bear close observation. And, of course, it remains to be seen how the public responds to Republican rule of both houses of Congress. As we prepare for Republican takeover of the Senate, how do Utahns view the state’s junior senator?

Last year, we reported a significant decline in Senator Mike Lee’s favorability ratings after the controversial and divisive government shutdown.  Prior to the shutdown, views about Senator Lee were, on balance, positive, though not overwhelmingly so.  About 50% of Utah voters viewed Senator Lee favorably, and a little over 40% viewed him unfavorably (the remaining 10% said they had no opinion one way or the other).  After the shutdown, those numbers reversed, and Senator Lee’s unfavorables outpaced his favorables, 52% to 40% — a remarkably low evaluation for a Utah politician.  (Of the state’s political figures we asked our respondents to evaluate over the past 4 years, only John Swallow’s numbers have been worse.)

In September, analysts at Utah Policy observed a rebound in Senator Lee’s approval ratings, arguing that his renewed support among Utah voters was driven primarily by Republicans rallying behind him.  CSED’s Utah Voter Poll is uniquely positioned to dig deeper into this question and to show how things have changed over the last year, as we asked the exact same question about favorability toward Lee multiple times.  Moreover, we asked the same question to the same survey population — our sample of Utah voters who had taken part in a previous election in the state.  Because both question wording and the survey population could affect the results, holding both of these features constant allows for the best test of how attitudes toward Senator Lee have changed since 2013.

And what do our results reveal?  Potentially good news for Senator Lee.  Compared to one year ago, our October 2014 UVP shows a substantial change in voters’ views about the senator. Overall, favorability toward Senator Lee has now nearly returned to its pre-shutdown levels. Figure 1 presents the percentage of voters falling into each favorability category in June 2013 (prior to the shutdown), October 2013 (just after the shutdown began), and finally in October 2014.  It is easy to see the dramatic spike in the percentage of voters who expressed “very unfavorable” views of Senator Lee in October 2013 — the change from 27% in June to 40% in October represents a 13 percentage-point increase in highly negative opinions.  But the October 2014 results show that those negative sentiments have now died down considerably, with 31% of voters reporting “very unfavorable” views.

Lee Favorability_All

Figure 1: Favorability toward Senator Lee

These results represent an improvement for Senator Lee, though it is also true that our October 2014 panelists had comparatively less negative responses to most other politicians we asked about.  For example, only 9% of respondents had “very unfavorable” views of Governor Herbert and only 10% of respondents had a similar reaction to Jim Matheson.  The closest numbers to Senator Lee’s are judgments about Senator Hatch, whom a little more than 26% of respondents judged very unfavorably.

The trends since 2013 for Senator Lee can be seen more clearly in Table 1, where we collapse the “very unfavorable” and “somewhat unfavorable” results together and do the same for “very” or “somewhat” favorable reactions.  (The remaining percentage said they had no opinion.)  As the table shows, the dramatic reversal in public opinion from June to October persisted through at least March of this year.  In October, however, the numbers reverted to nearly their pre-shutdown levels — certainly not anywhere close to the high levels of favorability of the state’s most popular politicians, but at least more favorable than unfavorable.

Table 1: Favorability Over Time
Very or Somewhat
Very or Somewhat
June 2013 40% 50%
October 2013 52% 40%
November 2013 56% 40%
January 2014 53% 41%
March 2014 51% 43%
October 2014 44% 50%

Figure 2 presents this same information in a slightly different form.  The bars in the figure indicate the difference in public opinion from the June 2013 baseline (40% unfavorable and 50% favorable).  Beginning in October, unfavorable reactions spiked dramatically upward, while favorable opinion moved solidly in the opposite direction — not a trend any politician would prefer. Negativity toward Senator Lee reached its apex in November of 2013, when unfavorable reactions were 16 percentage points higher than the June numbers.  What’s more, less than favorable opinion persisted well into 2014, when our March UVP still found Lee upside down in favorability, with unfavorables 11 points higher than in June of 2013 and favorables 7 points lower.  By October, though, favorables had recovered all of their post-shutdown losses.

Change in Lee Favorability over Time

Figure 2: Change from June 2013 Baseline

What accounts for Senator Lee’s recovery in Utah public opinion?  Similar to the Utah Policy findings, our analysis points to significant gains among his co-partisans.  Figure 3 shows the change in favorability toward Senator Lee between October 2013 and October 2014 by levels of partisan identification (voters’ self-reported sense of attachment to the political parties).  In other words, we’re looking at how opinion has changed among different types of voters in the one year since the government shutdown.  As the figure makes clear, opinion among Democrats has not changed at all — they were highly negative in October of 2013, and they remain so today.  Any gains in favorability, then, can be entirely traced to independents and Republicans.  More favorable opinion is especially pronounced among so-called “weak Republicans” — those who consider themselves Republicans but do not identify as the strongest partisans.  As can be seen in the figure, favorable views of Lee among this group have increased by almost 25 percentage points since October 2013. A year ago, only 46% of weak Republicans had a favorable opinion of Lee (against 40% who had an unfavorable opinion).  In October of 2014, fully 70% of weak Republicans felt favorably toward him (and only 22% felt unfavorably).  Independents, independents who lean in a Republican direction, and strong Republicans also expressed increased favorability.

Figure 3: Change in Lee Favorability from October 2013 by Party ID

Figure 3: Change in Lee Favorability from October 2013 by Party ID

Together, these increases have had a substantial effect on Senator Lee’s overall numbers in the state, where most voters are, of course, Republican.  While we do see some improvement among independents, Senator Lee’s rebound can primarily be traced to his fellow Republicans.  Many of his co-partisans were unwilling to express positive views about him in the aftermath of the government shutdown, but have now returned to their previously positive assessments.

These patterns have another important implication: they mean that views of Senator Lee are highly polarized by partisanship.  Figure 4 shows the proportion of Utah voters in October 2014 who have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Senator Lee, again broken down by their self-reported party identification.  As can be seen in the figure, extraordinarily high percentages of Democrats have unfavorable views of Senator Lee, and almost no Democrats — whether strong partisans, weak partisans, or independents who lean toward the Democrats — have positive views of him.

Figure 4: Proportion of Voters Expressing Favorable (or Unfavorable) Views of Senator Lee

Figure 4: Proportion of Voters Expressing Favorable (or Unfavorable) Views of Senator Lee

In many ways, this should not be surprising. Decades of political science research have shown, over and over again, the ways in which party allegiances serve as a perceptual screen through which voters evaluate the candidates.  In the eyes of voters, not all candidates are evaluated equally: voters tend to be much harder on candidates who do not share their partisan attachments and much more forgiving of those who do.  Given this research, we should expect Democrats to have substantially less positive reactions to a conservative Republican candidate.  (The same is true for how Republicans typically respond to Democratic candidates.)  Even among independents, though, Senator Lee’s unfavorables outpace his favorables by 20 percentage points, 54% to 34%.  If, as is likely, these patterns hold up, Senator Lee can expect exceptionally low levels of support from the state’s Democrats and only tepid support from independents when he runs for re-election in 2016.

The good news for Senator Lee is that his core supporters — his fellow Republicans — have returned to the fold and are now much more positive than negative about him. Again, partisanship serves as a screen or lens through which voters evaluate different candidates, so it is not surprising that Republicans are more inclined to see the positive in Lee. Their negative reactions to him after the shutdown were the exception, not the rule (and even then, they were never as negative as independents and Democrats).  In October of this year, about twice as many Republicans reported a favorable view than an unfavorable view of Lee.  Combining strong, weak, and “leaning” Republicans, Senator Lee enjoys a 64/32 favorable to unfavorable rating — not quite the 71/22 ratio he had in June 2013, but perhaps well on his way back to those numbers.

If he is to be re-elected, such support among his base will be key.  Even with the rebound in opinion toward him, his favorables among Republicans generally still lag about 10 points behind those of more popular Republicans like Governor Herbert. (Republicans may be more favorable to Lee than Democrats, but this does not mean that Republicans evaluate all Republican candidates equally.)  Overall, Lee’s favorables are now about on par with Senator Hatch’s, with one important exception: the strongest Republicans are much more likely to be “very favorable” toward Senator Lee (48%) than Senator Hatch (30%).  In other words, Lee’s most intense support is highly concentrated among those with the strongest allegiances to the Republican party.  In addition, though not surprisingly, respondents to our survey who consider themselves active supporters of the Tea Party are even more likely to say they have “very favorable” opinions toward him (73%).

The support from Tea Partiers and strong Republicans is crucial for Senator Lee if he wants to fend off potential Republican challengers in a Republican primary or convention in 2016.  Last year, we wrote that Lee was vulnerable to challenge.  He appears less so now, though it remains to be seen whether the currently positive views of his fellow partisans would hold up under criticism from a fellow Republican and whether a potential challenger could make use of the state’s new rules about primary contests to avoid a convention, where the strongest partisans — the core of Lee’s support — are highly represented.  On that score, the dramatic improvement in the opinions of “weak” Republicans may be an especially important development for Lee, though a primary still looms as a relatively more risky setting for him than a convention vote.

Turning from Republicans to the full electorate, Senator Lee clearly has work to do to convince more independents to join his cause, and anything more than minscule levels of Democratic support is likely  a lost cause.  Even in a heavily Republican state like Utah, that opens the door for a quality challenger like Jim Matheson, who has made his career crafting winning coalitions of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans.  In fact, on election night, the Utah Colleges Exit Poll asked a random statewide sample of voters their preferences in a hypothetical 2016 Senate race between Jim Matheson and Mike Lee.  These results should be taken with a grain of salt — they are merely hypothetical — but they show an extremely tight contest: 44.5% of respondents said they preferred Lee, 41.5% said they preferred Matheson, and 14% were undecided.  Such a close result is notable, given that the midterm electorate is likely to have a relatively high percentage of strong Republicans, the bulwark of Lee’s support.  Things may be even closer with a presidential electorate that is likely to be much larger, more diverse, and relatively more moderate.  Of course, the 2014 contests are barely in the rearview mirror and Jim Matheson has not declared his intention to run in 2016, but a competitive statewide Senate race may already have political junkies salivating.  In the meantime, Senator Lee’s rebounding favorability in the court of public opinion will, no doubt, be something for challengers both inside and outside his party to consider.

About Chris Karpowitz: Chris Karpowitz is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

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Press On: What are Voter Perceptions of The Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune?

When asked to say which paper “reports fairly on the LDS Church,” 12% said The Salt Lake Tribune, 44% said The Deseret News. Only 14% said neither paper reported fairly.

James Madison eloquently argued for a free press in a constitutional republic. The press, he reasoned, helped to hold elected officials accountable by publishing the information citizens would need to make decisions about the power wielded by their elected officials.

The State of Utah finds itself in the enviable position of having two daily statewide newspapers to provide such information. Citizens can go to either one to learn about civic affairs. Each has its own distinct history and editorial stance. Overtime it appears that the histories and stances have created different loyalties among the state’s voters.

As reported in both The Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune, 81% of respondents to the October 2014 Utah Voter Poll “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that Utah needs two daily newspapers.

However, the overall agreement masks important subgroup differences in the ways in which individuals read the two papers and view their coverage. Thirty-eight percent of those who say they are not LDS say they read The Salt Lake Tribune regularly. Only 7% of those who are LDS say they read the paper regularly. The proportion almost flips for reading The Deseret News. Interestingly, and certainly in line with national trends, a large proportion of both LDS and non-LDS say they do not read either paper regularly.

I read this paper regularly by Religion

When asked to say which paper “reports fairly on the LDS Church,” 12% said The Salt Lake Tribune, 44% said The Deseret News. Only 14% said neither paper reported fairly.

Percent who say reports fairly about the LDS Church

But as might be expected, these proportions change when controlling for whether or not one actually reads a newspaper. When we restrict the analysis to those who say they read one or both of the papers regularly, perceptions of fairness change. Forty-three percent of those who read a paper regularly indicate that The Deseret News reports fairly about the LDS Church. Only 15% of those who read a paper regularly say The Salt Lake Tribune does, and 34% say both papers report fairly about the LDS Church.

Reports fairly about the LDS Church by Readers

When we ask respondents (analysis limited only to those who read a paper regularly) to state which paper “performs the press’ role as a watchdog,” 36% say The Salt Lake Tribune and 6% say The Deseret News. What seems to emerge in the data is that readers value different things about the two papers.  In the case of the Tribune, respondents to the poll who regularly consume the news appear to value the Tribune more than the News as fulfilling that traditional function of a free press.

Performs the press' role as watchdog new

The differences become even more evident when controlling for both regular readership and religion. Those individuals who read a paper regularly and are LDS are much more likely to say The Deseret News “reports fairly” than those who read a paper regularly and are not LDS. The same difference exists when assessing the fairness of The Salt Lake Tribune. Only 4% of individuals who read a paper regularly and are LDS believe The Salt Lake Tribune reports fairly while 38% of those who read a paper regularly and are not LDS conclude that The Tribune reports fairly.

Reports fairly about the LDS Church by religion

Such differences raise interesting questions about what “fairness” means. Some individuals probably think “fairness” involves being tough on an institution while others certainly think “fairness” involves understanding and respecting that institution’s mission. What particular form of “fairness” individuals use to evaluate the reporting of the two major newspapers will have to wait for another poll.

The analysis reported above isolates only two important variables. A better method controls for many more factors in order to infer that the differences between the categories persist. Where the respondents have a choice between different categories but those categories are not ranked in any meaningful way, an appropriate method is multinomial logistic regression. This method permits a researcher to test what independent variables predict the probabilities that a person will choose a specific category of a dependent variable that is not ordered.

The model controls for religion, party identification, gender, age, religiosity, income, and education. The dependent variable is selecting The Salt Lake Tribune, The Deseret News, or Both when responding to the statement, “Reports fairly about the LDS Church.” Then it is possible to convert the results into probabilities for specific categories of the independent variables. Once again, only those respondents who “read a paper regularly” are included in the analysis.

As the figure below shows, a person’s probability of saying The Salt Lake Tribune “reports fairly on the LDS Church” drops 13 percentage points—holding all of the other variables constant—when the category changes from not LDS to LDS.

Change in Probability The Salt Lake Tribune

The change in the probability of selecting The Deseret News is even larger when comparing LDS to non-LDS respondents.

Change in Probability The Deseret News

The other two figures essentially show that there is not much difference between LDS and non-LDS respondents in their probabilities of selecting the categories of “both” or “neither.”

Change in Probability Both

Change in Probability for Neither

What all of the data in this blog post seems to indicate is that religion matters for the ways in which respondents view the different newspapers and their roles. If Madison was correct, then the press matters.  However it certainly behooves those who publish newspapers to always bear in mind that the decisions they make do indeed shape public opinion about their newspapers.

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We now have the fewest freshmen ever in the Utah House

Every incumbent on yesterday’s ballot won.

This post is based on preliminary election results. Provisional and absentee ballots remain to be counted.

When it convenes in January, Utah’s House of Representatives will have fewer freshmen on the floor than it has ever had since statehood. Ever. Yesterday’s elections set a record for low turnover in the Utah House. There will be 14 new faces (out of 75 seats), but only 12 can be considered freshmen. (The 13th and 14th, Brad King and Brad Daw, have served in the House previously.)

Because the size of the House grew gradually from statehood until the 1970s, we have to make these comparisons in percentage terms. The 12 freshmen represent 16% of the chamber. Only three other elections since statehood have produced fewer than 20% of seats held by freshmen. All three are in the recent past. The 2009 session had 17% freshmen, and the 1999 and 2007 sessions tied with 19% freshmen.

None of this is new, of course. Turnover has been declining in the Legislature for decades, a topic I have written about previously (in Nov 2012, May 2012, and March 2011). The following figure shows the trend in the House graphically. I plot a point for each odd-numbered year depicting the percent freshmen in the House following each even-numbered election. The first Legislature after statehood convened for a one-year term in 1896 following special 1895 elections. This figure begins in 1897, following the November 1896 elections–the first election after statehood when incumbent could have appeared on the ballot.

Turnover in the Utah House of Representatives, 1897-2015

Turnover in the Utah House of Representatives, 1897-2015

Turnover rates declined steadily from statehood until the 1980s. The decline has stabilized since the 1980s, perhaps because we are approaching a natural minimum. We are now in an era when low turnover is the norm.

Can incumbents lose anymore?

In total, yesterday’s elections produced turnover in 14 House districts (out of 75) and 2 Senate districts (out of 29, though only half were on the ballot). Yet none of these 16 changes came because of an incumbent’s general election loss. Every incumbent on yesterday’s ballot won.

Some incumbents had a scare, of course. Rep. Larry Wiley defeated his Republican challenger by only 33 votes, eking out a 50.5%-49.5% win. But like every other incumbent on yesterday’s ballot, he won. (This result could change as provisional and absentee ballots are counted over the next few days.)

This year’s only incumbent losses came last spring. Jim Bird, Jerry Anderson, and Dana Layton lost their seats to intraparty challengers. Richard Greenwood bowed out ahead of the convention in the face of looming defeat. That means only 4 of this year’s 16 changes came because of an incumbent’s nomination defeat. The other 12 came only because incumbents chose not to seek reelection.

With the Legislature’s high workload and low pay, it’s common to see so many retirements. But this year’s record-setting lack of House freshmen demonstrates just how much legislative turnover is driven by incumbents’ decisions to retire rather than by election results.

Is this bad?

Assessing low turnover is tricky business. On the one hand, elections should be competitive enough that enduring shifts in public opinion can successfully produce new legislators in office. On the other hand, excessive turnover can produce an inexperienced legislative body prone to hyperpartisanship and legislative errors.1 It’s not immediately clear what the best balance is between turnover and experience.

As a comparison point, Utah’s turnover has not declined to levels seen in the US House of Representatives. Yesterday’s elections produced only 13% turnover in the US House. (Only 394 of 435 US Representatives sought election, of whom 4 lost in primaries and 11 lost yesterday.) Though the Tea Party years produced marginally higher turnover–22% in 2010 and 18% in 2012–preceding years were closer to yesterday’s total (12% turnover in 2002, 10% in 2004, 14% in 2006, 13% in 2008).2

Though there is a long-term trend of decreasing turnover in the Utah House, it has not reached the level seen in the US House.

(This post was updated to correct the omission of Brad Daw.)

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Election result: The 3rd most Republican Legislature in 80 years

The 2015 Legislature will be the third-most Republican group in 80 years.

This post is based on preliminary election results. Provisional and absentee ballots remain to be counted.

Update (Nov 20): Now that provisional and absentee ballots are in, three elections have seen their outcome reversed. Disregard what’s written below and see this new post instead.

Two years ago, the 2012 elections gave Republicans 3 additional seats in the Utah House and 2 additional seats in the Utah Senate, producing the second-most Republican Legislature in 80 years.

This year, Democrats would have been pleased merely to avoid further losses. They went one better in yesterday’s election, picking up a single seat in the Utah House.

This gain will surely cheer Democrats. If nothing else, regaining a seat based on Carbon and Duchesne counties allows them, once again, to claim some following outside of Salt Lake County. But they shouldn’t get too excited. The 2015 Legislature will be the third-most Republican group in 80 years.

  • The 2015 House will be 80.0% Republican, down from 81.3% two years ago. This will be the fourth most Republican House (after 85.5% in 1967 and 81.3% in 1985 and 2013) since the Depression.
  • The 2015 Senate will remain 82.8% Republican. This ties 2013 and 1983 as the most Republican Senate since the Depression.
  • In total, 80.8% of legislators will be Republican in 2015, placing 2015 in a tie for third (with 1985) after 1967 (84.5%) and 2013 (81.7%).

Historical trends

The following figure provides some context. The Legislature experienced Democratic dominance in the 1930s and 1940s and a period of alternating party control from the late 1940s through the 1970s. Republicans have controlled the House since 1977 and the Senate since 1979. Democrats made some inroads in the 1990s, but Republicans have strengthened their control over the past half decade.

Partisan control of the Utah Legislature, 1931-2015

Partisan control of the Utah Legislature, 1931-2015

A historical footnote

If you’re curious why my figure and comparisons go back only to 1933, that’s because Utah had a strange relationship with the national political parties for the first forty years of statehood. After the dissolution of the old People’s Party and Liberal Party, it took Utah’s voters several decades to find a consistent partisan identity.

Below, you can see how erratic the figure would look if I used the entire data series since statehood. From 1897 through 1933, both parties experienced periods of near-unanimous control of the Legislature. Taking the long view, Utah Democrats can console themselves that it could be–and has been–worse.

Partisan control of the Utah Legislature, 1897-2015

Partisan control of the Utah Legislature, 1897-2015

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