Gehrke: The Love-McAdams race is incredibly tight. Here’s a look at what could tip the scales.

Rep. Mia Love and Salt Lake County mayor Ben McAdams shake hands as they take part in a debate at the Gail Miller Conference Center at Salt Lake Community College in Sandy on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. The two are battling for Utah's 4th Congressional District seat.

Remember back in 2012, when we were all hanging on for two weeks waiting for a winner to be declared in the 4th District race between Rep. Jim Matheson and Mia Love?

Now, with less than two weeks left until Election Day — if that means anything in the age of mail-in voting — the race between Love and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams could be just as tight as Matheson’s 768-vote 2012 nail-biter.

The most recent poll from The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics showed the race dead even, 46-46. The McAdams campaign released a poll Oct. 12 — an internal, so take it with a grain of salt — that showed McAdams with a 1-point lead.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Both sides acknowledge this will be a squeaker, so here’s a look at a few factors that could decide who is representing the 4th District in the next Congress.

Please don’t say blue wave!

Hey, you guys heard about this blue wave? Sorry. We have to go there. The notion is that Democrats and Trump-loathing independents are angry and ready to take it out on Republicans.

There are so few Democrats in Utah that it’s hard to make a wave in a wading pool. But there are some signs that point to at least some movement that could help McAdams to victory.

Statewide, Democrats have added nearly 11,000 registered voters since the 2016 election, while Republicans have lost nearly 15,000.

Specifically in the 4th District, Democrats have added twice as many voters as Republicans — 8,049 to 3,852 — since the 2014 midterm, according to the most recent figures from the state elections office. Sure, Republicans still outnumber Democrats by a wide margin, but the advantage has narrowed some, and in a tight race, it could matter. Not a wave, but maybe a ripple.

An enthusiasm edge

Drilling down into The Tribune poll, we also find that McAdams opens up a slight 48 percent to 45 percent lead among those voters who say they are most excited about voting. McAdams’ internal also gave him a 5-point lead among strong supporters of each candidate.

So McAdams’ base appears more solid. He has the backing of 95 percent of the Democrats, while Love is losing 15 percent of Republicans to McAdams — a problem she has had in every election she has run.

The most remarkable gap, and the biggest threat to Love, comes among independents, where McAdams leads 61 percent to 32 percent. In 2016, when she beat Doug Owens, Love won 46 percent of independents, according to the Utah Colleges Exit Poll.

This poses a major problem for Love.

Add in that McAdams has momentum on his side, erasing a 6-point deficit over the past month, and things look good for the challenger. Right? Maybe.

Mia’s counterpunch

Love is closing with ads featuring prominent endorsements from Senate candidate Mitt Romney and Josh Holt, the Utahn who was held in a Venezuelan prison for two years, an appeal that can shore up her base and appeal to those problematic independents.

She is finally getting out from under the campaign fundraising cloud that has dogged her and has tried to flip the narrative into one of McAdams colluding with Democrats to smear her.

Statewide mail-in balloting probably helps Love, since she has struggled to get Utah County voters to the polls because there typically aren’t any other competitive races in the county on Election Day.

And she got a surprise bonus when The Tribune’s editorial board (of which I am not a member) endorsed her this week. Normally I don’t think endorsements matter, but when it comes to reaching moderates, it won’t hurt.

What comes next?

Conventional wisdom is that, unless one candidate is way behind and hits the panic button, candidates want to end positive.

We’re seeing that in Love’s latest ads with Romney and Holt. McAdams, despite having raised about $2 million less than Love, has more left in the bank and is closing with two ads — one hitting Love on health care, the other a familiar feel-good piece aimed directly at independents.

While the candidates go high, the partisan Super PACs will continue to go low, hitting the candidates hard with what by now are familiar themes.

For the Republicans, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which has painted McAdams as a tax-and-spend liberal, has reserved airtime through the election, as has Patriot Majority PAC on the Democratic side. That group has run ads hammering Love over the campaign finance violations.

And the winner is …

Flip a coin. Really, it’s that close. Though in a naturally Republican state, it’s hard to bet against a Republican incumbent.

It likely comes down to what the electorate looks like this year. That depends on three things:

1. Who has the best get-out-the-vote campaign? Mail-in balloting has put a premium on a meticulous, coordinated voter targeting effort, and if you live in the district, chances are you’re already getting annoying calls and texts reminding you to return your ballot.

2. Romney or Trump: If Love prevails, she’ll owe Romney a steak dinner for pulling her to victory on his coattails. If McAdams wins, he can send some Big Macs to the White House to thank Trump for doing what many thought couldn’t be done — energizing Democrats in a midterm.

3. The real question mark is the roughly 10,000 voters, who end up truly on the fence. Think about it: Since this district was created, two of the three contests — Matheson’s 768-vote win followed by Love’s 7,500-vote victory — have been very close. This one will be close, too, and it won’t be decided by the partisan votes on the left or right. It’s those wild cards who will pick the winner.