Is Utah A Swing State?

If Trump manages to obtain the Republican party’s nomination Utah may be a hotly contested battleground state in 2016.

While we’re still more than a year away from electing our next president, news stories abound regarding the abundance of candidates seeking the Republican nomination. With 17 candidates in the field, it is perhaps a little surprising to see one candidate receiving so much of the media’s attention this early in the race. It will come as no shock that I am talking about real estate mogul, reality television celebrity, and self-described really rich person, Donald Trump.

While the news media fill hours of programming each day discussing the ongoing primary campaign, political scientists often feel the responsibility to be the buzzkill of the party by telling people that discussing presidential polls this far out (we’re more than 14 months away from the election!) is not a particularly meaningful activity. Polls taken at this point in the race tend to not do well at predicting the eventual party nominee or the candidate that will end up moving into the White House.

However, as political scientists, we sometimes can’t help ourselves and we go against all of our own advice and conduct a poll that’s just too interesting not to talk about. Plus, it’s summer time and who doesn’t enjoy a little bit of fun political news to discuss at the next neighborhood cookout? With that being said, the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED) at Brigham Young University surveyed Utah voters on August 10th – 18th regarding a number of topics and political issues. One of the questions we asked was:

If the 2016 presidential election were being held today and the candidates were Hillary Clinton, the Democrat, and Donald Trump, the Republican, for whom would you vote?

While these types of hypothetical questions may not tell us much about the eventual outcome of the election, they do tell us about public opinion right now. A lot can change between now and the election, including a completely different pair of candidates being the parties’ nominees. But with those caveats out of the way, we present the results of this hypothetical matchup in Utah.


Figure 1

The figure above shows the overall proportion of respondents who favor Clinton and Trump respectively. Donald Trump defeats Clinton in this hypothetical race by about 8 points (54% to 46%). If this were the actual election outcome in Utah in November 2016 it would mark the most competitive presidential race in the state in 50 years. The next most competitive election occurred in Utah in 1964 when Democrat Lyndon Johnson beat Republican Barry Goldwater 55% to 45%. If Trump manages to obtain the Republican party’s nomination Utah may be a hotly contested battleground state in 2016.

Let’s look a little deeper at these numbers to see where the support for the two candidates comes from. The following figure shows the hypothetical vote question broken down by Republicans, Independents, Democrats, and those who say they have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party.

As we can see both Trump and Clinton are polarizing figures in American politics. Among Republicans in the survey, Trump handily defeats Clinton with slightly more than 80% support. Clinton defeats Trump among Democrats with basically unanimous support. However, despite the polarization, Trump still needs help from a large share of the state’s independent voters in order to carry the state. We see that Trump’s narrow victory statewide is largely a factor of the large majority (60%) of votes Clinton gains from voters that do not identify with either political party.

Figure 2

Another interesting pattern is the near unanimous support Trump receives among those who identify as Tea Party supporters. This is perhaps an unexpected friendship as Trump has in the past endorsed a number of policies that are vehemently opposed by Tea Party supporters. Despite this incongruence, Trump is supported by 98% of those who also support the Tea Party.

Should these results worry the Republican Party nationally? Utah has been a solidly Republican state in presidential elections for the last 50 years. If the reddest of red states is suddenly a swing state, should Republicans be concerned about Trump damaging the party’s chances to take the White House in 2016? Yes and no. While polls are fun to discuss, Donald Trump is very much a long shot for the Republican nomination. Political scientists often use other measures aside from polls as better indicators of the parties’ likely nominees. These indicators include support from campaign donors, endorsements from elected officials, and favorable views from party activists. While Trump is skilled at courting media attention, he has not invested in building support from these important inside groups. Thus, Trump may not be a direct concern to Republicans hoping to take the White House in 2016. And yet, with each speech, the remaining 16 candidates must react, and often go on the record in response to, politically insensitive statements made by Trump. These are often topics that candidates would rather not discuss as they know the responses that please Republican primary voters are often off-putting to independents and swing voters. Thus, Trump’s presence in the race may indirectly hurt the eventual Republican nominee in the general election.

While nothing is certain, watching these 17 candidates vie for the nomination will make for an entertaining summer, fall, winter, spring, summer, and fall. Oh yeah, did I mention we’re still more than a year away from this thing being over?


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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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