October 12, 2016 at 9:13 AM
The last four polls in Utah suggest something of a pattern.
Public Policy Polling surveyed in the state in mid-August — near Hillary Clinton's peak nationally — and found Donald Trump leading her by 20 points. In early September, UtahPolicy.com released a survey showing Trump with a 15-point lead and introducing independent candidate Evan McMullin, who got 9 percent. In mid-September, the Salt Lake Tribune found that Trump had a nine-point lead over Clinton, with McMullin at 12.
20-15-9. McMullin at 0-9-12. You see where this is going.
On Wednesday morning, Deseret News reported on a new poll in the state from a Utah-based company called Y2 Analytics. Trump's lead in this poll is 0 percent, a tie with Clinton at 26 percent support. McMullin has jumped to 22 percent, within the margin of error, and Libertarian Gary Johnson is at 16.
There's not a lot of polling done in Utah, so it's worth remembering that this is one poll, in isolation. And that said: Dang.
It's fair to assume that there has been a shift in the state in recent days. In the wake of the release of the hot-mic tape from 2005, a number of Republicans called on Trump to step down or revoked their endorsements of him. Many were from centrist districts, but politicians from Utah were a clear outlier, speaking out against Trump despite being from deep-red areas. In the primaries, Trump fared particularly poorly in Utah, a result that was generally attributed to skepticism from Mormon voters.
So what if? What if Trump doesn't win Utah? The electoral math quickly gets tricky.
What happens if Hillary Clinton wins Utah?
When Clinton opened a campaign office in Salt Lake City, it was safe to see this as a bit of gamesmanship. In a normal year, it would be the sort of feint aimed at getting a normal Republican to think about spending money in a state that should be safe. This year, normal rules don't apply — and this new poll suggests it could be money well spent. (Imagine if Clinton won a narrow victory in Utah because she actually did get-out-the-vote in the state!)
If Clinton ekes out a win in Utah, a Trump victory becomes significantly harder. In a normal year, we'd assume that a Democrat winning a state as red as Utah would mean a broad shift nationally that would flip less-red states first — Texas, Arizona, Georgia, etc. But let's consider Utah in isolation, relative to current polling in each state.
Were Trump to hold every state that Mitt Romney won in 2012 and take the nine closest states right now — including Florida and Ohio — he'd still trail Clinton by 12 electoral votes if she won Utah, and he'd still lose the election. In that case, Utah makes the 12-point difference. If Trump holds Utah but wins those nine states, the election ends up as a tie. (You can game it yourself if you wish.)
Trump's path to victory is hard as it is. Giving up 12 electoral votes to Clinton makes it much trickier.
What happens if McMullin wins Utah?
The last time a third-party candidate won a state in a presidential election was 1968, when George Wallace carried most of the Deep South on a segregationist platform. Twenty years prior, Strom Thurmond won Deep South states on similar issues. In 1924, Robert LaFollette won his home state of Wisconsin, running as a progressive.
That's it in the last century. Ross Perot did pretty well nationally in 1992, but he didn't win any states. So a McMullin victory would be exceptional. It's not impossible, certainly, particularly if Gary Johnson supporters switch to McMullin with an eye toward denying Trump the state. Still unlikely.
But we're operating under the assumption that it happens. If Utah gives its electoral votes to neither Trump nor Clinton and Trump wins those same nine closest states, his position doesn't improve — but Clinton lands at 269 electoral votes. In that situation, McMullin would probably end up handing the election to Trump, since the House of Representatives would be empowered to resolve the election given a lack of a majority in the electoral college.
Of course, if Trump wins all of those states, it's hard to see how he wouldn't still win Utah. There are 4.5 Republicans for every Democrat in Utah, a huge advantage to any Republican in the state — even Trump. But there are also about 500,000 independents to the state's 650,000 Republicans, which this year is clearly a disadvantage to Trump's candidacy.
National polling right now has Trump at one of his biggest deficits since winning the Republican nomination. It's the sort of moment when states that wouldn't normally look close suddenly might. If the race narrows, it's far less likely that one of the unlikely scenarios above occurs. If the race continues to trend toward Clinton, what happens in Utah won't matter. Clinton already has a massive lead in the electoral vote, based on state polling. If that holds, watching Utah turn some color other than red would be a novelty, not a decision-maker.