How Does Jim Matheson Keep Winning?

It’s simple math. For Democrats to win in Utah, they must win over a substantial share of Republican voters.

This analysis was performed by Alissa Wilkinson, a student research fellow at BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (like us on Facebook), in collaboration with CSED faculty.  Inquiries about this research should come to Quin Monson.

Representative Jim Matheson has won a very narrow victory over Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love in one of the most hotly contested U.S. House races this year.  The final tally will be certified by the state next week, but now that the counties have finished their counting he appears to have hung on by only 768 votes (hat tip @RobertGehrke).

Republicans have tried to oust Matheson before and they came very close in 2002 and 2010. Like 2002, in 2012 Matheson faced the challenge of introducing himself to new potential constituents.  Moving into a new district is risky business for any elected official, but especially so for a Democrat in a Republican state.  A Democrat just can’t win on Democratic votes alone in Utah. It’s simple math.

So how does Jim Matheson continue to win?  He gets enough Republican votes–sometimes just barely enough. This year Matheson won 23 percent of the Republican vote. When we classify Republicans we include independents who “lean” towards the Republican Party as well as “not so strong” Republicans (also labeled “weak” Republicans) and “strong” Republicans.

Drawing on 2012 Utah Colleges Exit Poll data, the figure below shows that Jim Matheson captured 11 percent of strong Republicans’ votes. These numbers are even more impressive when contrasted with Mia Love who only managed to win 3 percent from strong Democrats.  He won more than a third of both not so strong Republicans and independent leaning Republicans.

How does 2012 compare with earlier years?  The figure below uses Utah Colleges Exit Poll data from 2000 through 2012 to show that Matheson has consistently won a significant share of Republican votes.  Note that in 2002 (also a redistricting year), Jim Matheson won in a more heavily Republican district than he had in the previous election. Comparing 2002 to 2012, Matheson did better among not so strong and strong Republicans while losing a small number of independent leaning Republicans. 2008 was by far Representative Matheson’s best year among Republicans, where he obtained over 60 percent of not so strong Republicans’ votes and even 32 percent of strong Republicans.

So, why can’t Jim Matheson be beaten? It’s simple. He consistently maintains an overwhelming majority of Democratic votes as well as a significant percentage of the Republican votes. It’s simple math. For Democrats to win in Utah, they must win over a substantial share of Republican voters.

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About Quin Monson

Quin Monson is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Senior Scholar with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
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