Over the last few election cycles, there has been a gradual change when it comes to the way Salt Lake County has voted. It has gone from solidly supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 to supporting Hillary Clinton last year. However, the last two elections were probably anomalies, with Romney heading the ticket in 2012, and right-of-center Evan McMullin, a Utah Mormon, leading an independent challenge in 2016. Hopefully, 2020 will bring a return to some sense of normality to presidential elections in Utah.
With that, Democrats still have an uphill battle when it comes to making Salt Lake County solid blue, but there is a path to long-term success.
One way that Democrats can grow their numbers in Salt Lake County is by doing a major voter registration push. In municipalities where Hillary Clinton performed well, the percentage of the voting age population (according to the U.S. Census estimates for 2016) who are actually registered to vote is lower compared to the rest of the county. In Salt Lake City, where Clinton received 66% of the vote, only 60% of the voting age population (VAP) is registered to vote. If the percentage of VAP was registered at 70%, this would add around 15,000 new voters, with about 10,000 of those voters favoring the Democratic candidate. And since Salt Lake City’s turnout rate (85.64%) is actually the third highest among county municipalities (behind Holladay and Draper), there is a strong likelihood of these new voters turning out.
While Salt Lake City shows strong potential, the new battleground in the county, West Valley City, also shows some promise for Democrats. First, it should be noted that West Valley City is not far behind Salt Lake City for being the largest city in Salt Lake County, at 70% the size of Salt Lake City. In addition, West Valley City still has room to grow, while Salt Lake City is somewhat restricted geographically (US Census estimates are that WVC has grown 5.2% compared to SLC’s 3.7% between 2010 and 2016). That being said, only 49% of the VAP is registered to vote in West Valley City, which is the second lowest total in the Salt Lake Valley. With recent Democratic trends and demographic changes, West Valley City registration number increases could flip Mike Winder’s (30) and Craig Hall’s (33) House districts, while making Elizabeth Weight’s (31) district a safe Democratic seat in two to four years time.
Another opportunity for Democrats is in South Salt Lake. Only 39% of the estimated 19,162 of VAP are actually registered to vote. Of those who did vote, Clinton won 58%, with Trump only receiving 21%. Therefore, South Salt Lake is a Democratic stronghold. As with Salt Lake City, if South Salt Lake VAP registration percentage increased to 70%, that would add around 5,800 total voters, with 3,500 of those voters leaning Democratic. Of course, most of the seats in the legislature are safe here, but these few thousand votes could tilt the balance of power in county-wide races.
Overall, it does show that Democrats do have an edge if they increase registration numbers of people who are not currently registered. Still, it can be a double-edged sword. In the south part of the county, in Herriman and South Jordan, we have seen the largest increases in population over the last six years. Both places continue to be strong Republican areas, and expanding the population might help the Republicans. But the gains down south would probably not be as great as any gain northern part of the county, at least not immediately. And again, West Valley City could offset any gains down south.
Furthermore, in non-incorporated areas like Kearns, and the newly incorporated Millcreek, Democrats can compete, and in some areas have a slight advantage. However, because both of these places were not incorporated at the time of the last US Census estimate, an accurate assessment of the VAP percentage that is registered is not possible.