The Road to 270: Utah

April 6, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.

Utah

From 2012 to 2016, the state that saw the biggest swing towards the Democratic presidential nominee was not deep blue California or Hawaii. Instead, it was staunchly Republican Utah. The state that gave Mitt Romney a 48% margin over Barack Obama (his largest in the nation) shifted 30% towards Democrats and gave Donald Trump a far smaller 18% victory over Hillary Clinton. Utah's history, perhaps more than any other state's, is key to understanding these contemporary trends. We’ll start with its journey to statehood.  

Pre-Statehood

Utah gets its name from the Ute people who lived in the region prior to French and Spanish exploration in the mid 18th Century. Spain was first to claim the territory, but made no effort to colonize it due to its arid and infertile land. Through 1820, what we now know as Utah was a part of New Spain and inhabited by Native Americans and European fur trappers. In 1822, however, following Mexico’s independence from Spain, the region became a part of Mexico and was named Alta California.

The next phase of Utah history took place in New York, where Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The new church (also known as the LDS or Mormon Church) and its followers faced persecution and violence. In 1847, three years after the murder of its founder, a group of Mormons set out for the secluded isolation of Utah and landed in the Salt Lake Valley. Conveniently for the new settlers, the United States took over the region after defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American war. In just one year, over 4,000 more Mormons joined the existing community. Their numbers would pass 10,000 by 1850.

After a failed attempt by the settlers to form the wonkily shaped “State of Deseret”, the federal government instead established the Utah Territory. The new territory comprised much of today’s Utah, Colorado, and Nevada. To prevent the supposed social ills of the Mormon way of life, chiefly polygamy, the federal government controlled the new territory. In 1861, with the start of the Civil War, this moral crusade took a back seat. Federal troops were deployed to fight the Confederacy and Mormon population regained their independence.

In the coming decades, largely with the help of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the barrier between Utah and the rest of the country deteriorated. Both Mormons and non-Mormons moved in, causing two tiers of tension — Native American versus new settlers as well as Mormon versus non-Mormon. Clashes between Native Americans and new settlers were largely fought on the battlefield and resulted in Native American tribes being squeezed into reservations. Conflicts between the Mormon and non-Mormon populations were fought in the political arena, standoffs that Mormons won with ease.

By the 1890s, Utah was surrounded by Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado — all states that had successfully applied and qualified for statehood. Utah was only to be admitted if the state banned polygamy — an ordinance that was written into the state’s constitution. As such, Utah was finally admitted to the Union in 1896 as the 45th state.  

Depression and Two World Wars

World War I brought rationing and scarcity to Utahans but it also boosted the state’s economy. The coal and copper industries — both materials needed for the war effort — boomed, as did trade unions. But the demands of the War faded in the 1920s and the state’s agricultural and mining industries took a hit. When the Great Depression came later in the decade, the state’s economy sunk only further. High cost of living, low wages, and drought only exacerbated the misery. 

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was welcome in the state. The public works programs put Utahans back to work and newly bolstered unions gave workers bargaining power for wages and labor conditions. Utah’s Carbon County (which we will come back to later) became a quintessential mining town, with the United Mine Workers of America helping organize labor in favor of Democrats.

Again during World War II, Utah’s manufacturing industry took off. Geneva Steel, in operation from 1943 through 2001, was built to produce steel for the war effort, but also helped bring the state’s post-depression economy to life. The war also brought skepticism and hostility towards Japanese-Americans, 8,000 of whom were forced into the Topaz Internment Camp about 100 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Post War Rebranding

Post-War Utah needed a rebranding. Through newly established national parks — Zion and Bryce — and ski resorts, Utah would become a mecca for outdoor adventure and tourism. The construction of interstate highways in the 1950s and 1960s opened the state to tourists and population growth. The population more than doubled between 1950 and 1980. The new people brought with them business, technology, and cultural growth. Technology companies including Iomega (later renamed LenovoEMC) and Novell built Utah headquarters in the 1980s, industries that were helped along by a young, educated population. A cycle of population growth, urban development, innovation, business success, and internationally recognized outdoor sporting culminated in Salt Lake City being chosen to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. The Olympics brought fame to the state’s ski resorts, construction of world class sports facilities, and a massive population influx. In response, Salt Lake City built and expanded its public transit and freeway systems. This newly achieved fame and public infrastructure helped Utah grow and accommodate growth for the next two decades.

Between 2000 and 2010, Utah grew by 24%, the third fastest growth of any state. From the 2010 Census to the 2020 Census Utah is likely to be the fastest growing state in the nation. This growth has been accompanied by a boom in the state's newer industries — technology, tourism education (University of Utah, BYU) — as well as a retraction of the state’s traditional, but fading industries — farming, mining, and oil drilling. These changes along with the state’s high birth rate have led to growth in the Wasatch Front (the state’s northern metropolitan corridor)  and St. George (the island of urbanity in the state’s southwest) and shrinkage in the rural center.

Electoral History

Through all this growth and change, Utah’s electoral history, at least on the presidential level, is straightforward. For most of its early statehood Utah voted Republican with the rest of the northern United States. The two exceptions are 1896 when Utahans supported the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan and in 1916 when they rewarded Democrat Woodrow Wilson for keeping the United States out of World War I.

Utah, devastated by the Great Depression and lifted by the New Deal, voted for Franklin Roosevelt in each of his four elections and for his successor, Harry Truman. This Democratic streak that lasted from 1932 to 1948 ended abruptly in 1952 when the state voted for Dwight Eisenhower. From that 1952 election through 2016, Utah voted Republican in every election except for Lyndon Johnson’s landslide defeat over conservative ideologue Barry Goldwater in 1964. While the Republican margin swung year to year — the state gave Ronald Reagan margins around 50% in both his 1980 and 1984 elections while George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole only won by around 20% in 1992 and 1996 — it never strayed so far as to be a realistic Democratic target.

Recent Elections and Demographics

At the turn of the century Utah was as Republican as ever. George W. Bush carried the state by over 40% in both 2000 and 2004 victories and won every county as he did so. Barack Obama closed that margin to 28% in 2008, flipping Salt Lake (Salt Lake City) and Summit (Park City) counties in the north and Grand County (Moab) in the east.

In 2012, however, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney would expand the 2008 margin by 20%, crushing Obama with a 48% margin and winning back the three counties that John McCain had lost four years prior. Romney, the first Latter-day Saint to ever lead a major party ticket, was particularly popular. He had a history in Utah too — leaving his job at Bain Capital to help lead the organizing committee of the 2002 Olympic Games. Though Romney largely kept his faith private, he also didn’t run from it. In his first presidential run in 2008, Romney resisted hiding from religion:

"If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it.”

His 2012 campaign took a similar tack, and the results would be a contemporary high-water mark for Republicans in Utah.

Compared to the mild mannered Romney, the decidedly less traditional Donald Trump did not play as well in the state. Mormons make up over 60% of the Utah population and these voters are younger, more educated, traditional, and — due to high levels of international volunteerism through missionaries — more familiar with foreign cultures than most of the Republican base.

Perhaps these voters would have bitten their tongues to vote for Trump — the only candidate who would promote cultural conservatism and nominate conservative judges — if they did not have an attractive third option in the form of Evan McMullin. McMullin entered the race in opposition to both major party candidates. A Utah native, BYU graduate, and a Mormon, McMullin was a good third-party fit for Utah won an impressive 21% of the vote. Most of McMullin’s share came from voters who had voted for Mitt Romney four years earlier. Donald Trump won 125,000 fewer votes than Romney had in 2012 while Clinton won 60,000 more than Obama had four years earlier.

Internal Utah Trends

In addition to these Utah-specific machinations, the state is following the dominant nationwide trend: urban and suburban areas are shifting left while rural, working class regions are moving right. This trend is easy to see by looking at Utah’s historical presidential maps and focusing on two areas — the Wasatch Front and Carbon County. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Wasatch Front, comprising Salt Lake City and its suburbs, was generally in line with the rest of the state. About two thirds of the state’s population lives in the region. Starting in the 1990s and continuing through 2016, the region become progressively more Democratic, with some of its counties finally flipping to Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016. Unlike most urban areas, however, the balance here is not overwhelmingly Democratic. Trump still carried several counties in the Wasatch Front and, in the two she carried, Clinton only won by 15% and 9%.

Compare this to Carbon County — an ancestrally Democratic county in the state’s interior. The county, with its coal mines, industrial character, and blue-collar communities regularly voted Democratic through the 1990s. Lyndon Johnson won 73% of the county’s vote in 1964. In 2000, however, as Democrats move leftward on social and environmental issues, the county flipped Republican. In 2016, Clinton lost this county — one that her husband had carried 20 years earlier — to Trump by 25%.

While Utah’s religious and demographic idiosyncrasies can trigger unique trends, it does not make the state entirely unpredictable. In the long term, the growth and Democratization of the Wasatch Front and Salt Lake City could be a problem for Republicans. It appears, however, that the state’s Mormon characteristic has muted Democratic success. If the Wasatch Front was as overwhelmingly Democratic as urban areas in most other states, Utah would be a battleground or even a blue-leaning state.

The 2020 results will help us discern just how much of Trump’s underperformance in 2016 was due to his unique weaknesses among Utah voters and how much was drained by third-party candidate Evan McMullin. Regardless, Utah is still a red state. Though Utah’s Mormon and conservative voters may not like Trump, they will not flee him in great enough numbers to make Utah competitive. Democrats can dream, but “Bluetah” is not likely to become reality in November.  

Next Week: Louisiana 

Reports in this series:

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