Which way did Utah Co and Weber Co swing?

Trump’s 2020 gains are trivial. He continues to fare worse in these areas than any Republican nominee in a generation.

The New York Times notes in passing today that two Utah metro areas (Provo-Orem and Ogden-Clearfield) moved toward Trump in 2020–the 6th and 8th largest pro-Trump swings in the nation!

Trouble is, the NYT is correct only in a very limited sense. It is much more accurate to say that Democratic presidential candidates did better in these areas than any Democratic presidential candidate in at least a generation. (I’ll look at the county-level results for this analysis, since I don’t have metro-area results handy.)

The NYT’s approach: Raw ballots, 2020 vs 2016

The NYT is correct that these counties moved toward Trump only if we limit ourselves to (1) comparing 2020 to 2016 only, and (2) looking at the raw numerical increase (as opposed to percentage increase) in ballots cast for Trump versus Clinton-Biden. With these limitations, here’s what we see:

In Utah County, Trump won 90,629 more ballots in 2020 than 2016, while Biden won 47,511 more than Clinton. In Weber County, Trump won 25,714 more, but Biden won only 14,564 more. These numbers motivated the NYT’s conclusion that both areas swung toward Trump.

Even within the narrow frame of 2020 vs 2016–a problematic frame, but we’ll get to that later–I don’t love this conclusion. Let’s switch from raw numbers to percentages to see why.

Trump may have gained 91K additional votes in Utah County, but his increase from 102,183 votes (2016) to 192,812 (2020) was only an 89% increase, as opposed to Biden’s astounding 167% increase over Clinton’s share (from 28,522 to 76,033). Likewise in Weber County, Trump’s share rose by 64%, but Biden’s rose 76% over Clinton’s.

I know, I know. In an election, it’s raw ballots that win, not percentage growth. But the percentage growth tells you something important about the baselines each candidate built on. Relative to their starting points, Biden gained more ground than Trump.

Better: Ignore 2016 and look at the longer trend

McMullin made 2016 so weird in Utah that any comparison between 2016 and another presidential election will be fraught. McMullin won 30% in Utah County and 19% in Weber County. With him off the ballot in 2020, those votes had to go somewhere. If we really want to understand how Trump did here, we need to look at the longer series so we can see past 2016.

First, look at the vote share won by Republican presidential candidates since 2000 in these two counties. Utah County is blue, Weber is orange. Trump may have increased his share in both counties relative to 2016, but it’s clear he’s way off from a typical Republican candidate. Trump’s 2020 gains are trivial. He continues to fare worse in these areas than any Republican nominee in a generation.

For another perspective, look at each Democratic nominee’s vote share over the same period. Unlike the previous chart, 2016 doesn’t stand out this time, making it clear that McMullin mostly took votes from Trump, not Clinton, in 2016. In both counties, Biden won more votes than any Democratic nominee in a generation. His 27% in Utah County is huge–other than Obama’s much lower 19% in 2008, no other Democrat has broken 14% there this century.

The point

In a narrow, short-term sense, it is correct that these two parts of Utah shifted toward Trump relative to 2016. More accurately, though, Trump continues to underperform. Without McMullin on the ballot, Utah Republicans may have been more willing to hold their noses and vote for him. But with McMullin gone and turnout way up, Democrats posted their best numbers in these two counties in a generation.

Don’t forget that turnout also rose tremendously–by 41% (83K ballots) in Utah County and 31% (26K) in Weber County. We’re not looking at the same voters year-to-year. But that’s a topic for another day.

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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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