Gehrke: What BYU’s David Magleby learned in his four decades studying Utah politics, and why he thinks we live in a scary time

Moderator Professor David Magleby asks a questions to candidates Rep, Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine and former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney as they participate in a Senate Republican Primary debate in Provo on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

After nearly 40 years teaching political science at Brigham Young University, David Magleby taught his last class just before Christmas break.

In that time he has seen Utah go from a state where Democrats had a fighting chance at statewide office to one of utter Republican domination. He has seen a young Democrat nobody named Bill Orton win in the most conservative part of the state. And he helped create the Utah Colleges Exit Poll, the preeminent tracker of the trends that drove voters and our politics until it was scrapped this year.

So I thought it would be fitting to ask the professor to take a look back at some of the highs and lows and the war stories from his past four decades, and find out what he thinks about politics under President Donald Trump. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Creating the exit poll

Magleby: “When I got to BYU, out of the blue, KBYU [the PBS affiliate in Provo] called and said, ‘Would you be willing to do our election night analysis?’ … [I said], “There's nothing to say until your viewers have gone to sleep … But if you'd be willing to host and potentially help fund a statewide exit poll then I'd be happy to try to put together a consortium of schools across the state and we could do it together.

“So that's how it started. And it was a wonderful collaboration. …

“But then with [by mail] voting you really ended up doing two exit polls. You had to do another poll of early voters. … And of course the first year we’re really doing this intensely with a presidential [race] was 2016. And so many Utah Republicans were unsure of how to vote. … My theory was that they were going to actually end up voting in person because they didn’t know what to do. …

“So we did something no exit poll has ever done. We had exit pollsters at the drop boxes with a big sign … “Would you please roll down your window if you're willing to take the poll? … Luckily it all worked out but that was a tremendous challenge.”

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

The Orton upset

Gehrke: “[In terms of] what you've seen happen here in Utah… I would imagine a lot has probably changed.”

Magleby: “There was this upstart from Sundance, a single attorney [Bill Orton], not terribly well known in the community. Nobody else is running. He announces. And interestingly enough the only media outlet that covered his campaign announcement was KBYU student coverage. …

“And that turned out to be such an interesting election with an intra-party fight between [John] Harmer and [Karl] Snow with the Harmer-ites being very conservative and not at all happy with Snow and it ended up that in many ways the Harmer voters put a Democrat in Congress because they voted overwhelmingly for Orton. …

“Then, of course, there’s an out-of-the-blue ad in the local newspaper … it was a full-page ad of Karl Snow with an extended family photo and Bill Orton by himself. And it said, ‘Some candidates espouse Utah values others practice them.’ And I can tell you that I got more comments ... at church on Sunday about people upset with the ad. They thought it was unfair that it implied things that may or may not have been true. … [Orton won the race] then of course he lasted for three terms which is stunning, really stunning.”

The Trump phenomenon

Gehrke: “So what do you see as being the most notable changes since [coming to BYU]?”

Magleby: “Well the biggest and most notable change is Trump. There's no question. … His presidency, he's been highly unconventional and I have an ethic of neutrality in the classroom. I try hard to create a space in which students can feel free to express different points of view where they can find themselves politically. … But that's very hard in this presidency. … You can't duck or hide from just how unusual Trump is. And on the other hand you shouldn't deny your students that fact. I mean they need to know that they're living at a time which is really very unusual.

Gehrke: “Peering into the crystal ball, what do you see the future to hold? Can you give us your best forecast on that?”

Magleby: “Well that's very hard because I would never have thought that a person with as limited a set of credentials or political experience as Trump would win. …

“I think most political scientists would say what I’m just saying, that all of our normal ‘expectations’ about candidacy and presidency, he’s violated. Having said that I think as the midterms showed his very low favorability rating, and not being able to have that move up over time in any periodic way even, suggests that if the Democrats nominate an electable candidate he could very readily be a one-term president.

“A lot is going to happen between now and November of 2020. But a lot of what could happen between now and then could be bad for him as well. … But we have become so polarized and so negative and so doubtful of respected media that we’re just in uncharted waters. And that’s why in [my] closing lecture I wanted the students to realize things we’d been studying that Madison and others established and that Lincoln through the Civil War reinforced about division and not secession are what give me a hope for the future. But I can tell you... I’m more worried now than I’ve ever been about the country’s future. I think it’s a very scary, very scary time.”