2012 was Utah’s most Republican-leaning presidential vote since statehood

Relative to the nation, Utah cast a more Republican vote in 2012 than at any time since statehood.

I just noticed something interesting while playing with the 2012 presidential election results for Utah. By one metric, it appears Utah may have been more Republican in 2012 than in any previous presidential election.

That’s not to say that Romney won more of Utah’s vote than any previous Republican presidential candidate. To the contrary, Reagan won a greater share than Romney. Yet Utah’s 2012 vote was more Republican than its 1980 or 1984 votes. I’ll explain.

Utah’s presidential electoral history

The easiest metric–but maybe not the most accurate–is to look at the percentage of the two-party vote1 won by each Republican presidential candidate. Utah’s presidential electoral history since statehood (1896) is shown below.

Utah’s presidential election results, 1896-2012, as Republican share of the two-party vote

You can see that the best-performing Republican presidential candidate in Utah has been Reagan (1980), followed by Reagan (1984), followed by Romney (2012). Remember one thing, though: Reagan also won the national popular vote by a decisive majority in both 1980 and 1984. If we want to measure how Republican Utah is, maybe we should compare Utah’s vote to the nation’s. After all, it doesn’t say much about Utah’s Republican tilt if it votes overwhelmingly for a Republican candidate (Reagan) who also won an overwhelming majority nationwide.

Comparing Utah’s Republican tilt to the nation’s

Here’s a modified version of the previous chart. As before, the maroon line shows the share of the vote won by Republican presidential candidates in Utah. I’ve added a blue line showing the share won by Republican candidates nationally.

Comparing Utah’s presidential vote to the national popular vote, 1896-2012

The green bars at the bottom are the most interesting metric. They show the difference between Utah’s vote and the nation’s. When the green bar is positive, Utah voted more heavily Republican than the nation did; when the green bar is negative, Utah voted more Democratic than the nation. Let’s call this metric the “Republican advantage” in Utah. Orange dots at the base of the green bars indicate years where Utah voted consistent with the national popular vote, showing that Utah was something of a swing state for much of its history until the past few decades.

You’ll find the greatest Republican advantage–that is, the tallest green bar–in 2012. Romney’s vote share in Utah exceeded his vote share nationally by 26.4 percentage points. Reagan (1980) is in second place, with a Republican advantage of 22.7 points. Relative to the nation, Utah cast a more Republican vote in 2012 than at any time since statehood.

Is this about Romney or about Republicans?

Maybe it’s because Romney is a Mormon. Or maybe it’s because Utah has moved even more to the right in recent years. Utah was very Republican by the 1980s, and people may struggle to believe that it’s even possible for it to have moved further to the right. But I’ve published lots of research here in the past couple years showing that Utah has done exactly that. You can find some of those posts here and here and here. We’ll see whether the trend continues or reverses in 2016.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate 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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