(Note: This article is an analysis about Salt Lake County. Statewide analysis coming soon).
All of the talk around politics today is about how 2018 is going to be another wave year for Democrats. Reminiscing about 2006, Democrats look poised to possibly take back the US House and Senate after a disastrous presidential election two years earlier. Of course, Donald Trump is diving the discussion, and we have already seen Democrats in Virginia doing what was considered the impossible, which is competing for the leadership of the House of Delegates. So, yes, it looks good for Democrats.
But this is Utah. And Mitt Romney is looking to run for US Senate.
With that being said, could that change the game? In 2012, Mitt Romney received 58.26% of the vote in Salt Lake County. One might think that is record breaking, but George W. Bush received 59.57% in 2004 against John Kerry. In 1996, Bob Dole won 45.51%, George W. Bush in 2000 won 55.84%. In 2008, John McCain won 48.09%, which was the first time that a Democrat, Barack Obama with his 48.17%, won Salt Lake County since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. So will there be a “Romney Coattails Effect” in 2018?
To answer that, I compared the coattails of Donald Trump to Mitt Romney. You might be saying to yourself “why are you using Trump” since he seems to be an anomaly in Utah politics? But hear me out. First, people think that Trump might have hurt turnout in Utah since he was so unpopular. Quite the opposite. The 2016 presidential election had a turnout rate in Salt Lake County of 83.7%, which is only only 3.4% lower than the turnout in 2012 for Mitt Romney. Compare this to the 66.36% turnout in 1996, and you can see that 2016 actually did turn out voters. So turnout numbers doesn’t seem to be an issue.
The method that I used to determine the coattails of down-ballot races was simple, just compare the means of the races for Senate, US Congress, Governor, Attorney General, Auditor, Treasurer (and not using the presidential races since we are looking at coattails, not overall Republican performance) of the 2012 and 2016 election. I am also looking at the variance in the electorate in in those two cycles to see if Donald Trump pushed more people to the Democratic side in down-ballot races.
Let’s first look at the county-wide comparison. The Republican mean (or average) of the races listed above in 2012 was 53.20%. In 2016, that number was 50.73%. So at least in high-profile races, we see that Mitt Romney’s coattails only had around a 2.47% increase on the Republican Party coattails between the two elections. As far as the variance, we see something quite interesting. The Republican variance in 2012 was 3.49%, while it was only 2.39% in 2016. This means that voters were more likely to split their vote in 2012 than they were in 2016, which flies against the race of Monday-morning quarterback wisdom.
If anything, it seems both Romney and Trump were in control of their own destiny when it came to their performance in Utah. Romney performed 5.06% better than the Republican mean of the down-ballot races, while Trump preformed 18.15% worse. With the Republican down-ballot mean only having 2.47% difference between the 2012 and 2016, this means that the top-of-the-ticket really had no impact when it came to vote choice. However, it should be noted that because the impact of both Romney and Trump was almost non-existent, the 2.47% difference is probably a good indication that Democrats are actually performing better in Salt Lake County. At this rate, Democrats will have a majority support in the county within the next few cycles. This trend is somewhat similar to Orange County, Florida. In the 1990s, Republicans would perform slightly better in down-ballot races. Now, Orange County is a strong Democratic county with a nearly 20% advantage for the Democrats.
This also bodes well for Democrats in 2018 in Utah. If this is truly going to be a Democratic year, and Romney has no impact on down-ballot races, then Democrats can compete in State House races. With that, using the same methodology, a breakdown of each State House district was done, with the results located here. However, before reading too much into the numbers, remember, these are only the means and variances of the federal (minus presidential) and statewide races in these State House seats. This does not look at the performance of individual State House campaigns, which has an impact on the outcome of State House races (with an article about that in the next few days). Key for the chart is located below the chart.
We see that Republican performance has dropped between 2012 and 2016. Some seats have seen minimal changes, like Daniel McCay’s seat, which is a solid Republican seat. The districts of Mark Wheatley and Sandra Hollins have seen significant loss in GOP support in their districts. Overall, the biggest partisan movers have been in highly partisan seats, which shows that polarization, even in Utah, is probably occurring.
Formula (technical stuff): When looking at the range of GOP votes within these State House seats, we simply add the 2016 GOP Mean, the GOP Mean Change. Then for higher performance, we simply add the GOP Variance Change (GOPMean+GOPMeanCh+GOPVarCh), and subtract the Variance Change for lower performance. The high performance indicates the best a generic GOP candidate would do against a generic Democratic candidate in that State House district. The lower performance would indicate the worst the generic GOP candidate would do against a generic Democratic candidate. Note that I use the word “generic” for both Democrats and Republicans, that is because some individual State House candidates perform much strong than they should in their districts.
First, let’s look at the safe seats. For the Democrats, the seats of Sandra Hollins, Rebecca Chavez-Houck (open this cycle), Joel Briscoe, Angela Romero, Brian King, Mark Wheatley, and Lynn Hemingway are very safe. For Republicans, Daniel McCay, Kim Coleman, Susan Pulsipher, Greg Hughes, Ken Ivory, and John Knotwell are safe. There is one anomaly here, however. LaVar Christensen’s seat would normally be considered a safe seat for a generic Republican vs. a generic Democrat. However, with the five-vote margin in 2016, Suzanne Harrison exceeded, by leaps and bounds, traditional Democratic performance. Therefore, this race is one to watch.
Next, let’s look at the leaning seats for both parties. For Democratic-leaning seats we have Elizabeth Weight (though that is on the cusp of being considered safe), Craig Hall (this seat shouldn’t even be close to being in Republican hands, and is a reverse scenario of the LaVar Christensen seat), Patrice Arent, Carol Spackman Moss and Marie Poulson (all three who represent districts that are a lot more Republican than one would think). For the Republicans we have Robert Spendlove…and that is it.
So, the most important seats; toss up seats. These are the ones that could flip this election cycle. For Democrats, the incumbents who are in toss up seats are Susan Duckworth and Karen Kwan, but the numbers favor them slightly for reelection. As for the Republican incumbents, Mike Winder, Eric Hutchings and Bruce Cutler are actually in seats that should slightly favor Democratic candidates, thus could easily be flipped with the right candidates. Cheryl Acton is in a toss up, but she should still be able to hold on. This leaves two State House seats in Salt Lake County, Jim Dunnigan and Steve Eliason, as pure toss up seats.
As you can see, I have strayed quite a bit from the original intent of this article, which was about Mitt Romney’s impact on the election. But if this is a Democratic wave year, Democrats in the state should be prepared for victories in the Utah Legislature.
Full state evaluation will be done in the coming weeks.