Robert Gehrke: LDS and Republican voters may decide the Salt Lake City mayor’s race — seriously

Robert Gehrke

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column relied on poll results that included at least 57 respondents who don’t live in Salt Lake City. A full explanation for this error can be found here. The main conclusions of this analysis have not changed.

Since he got into the Salt Lake City mayoral race, former state Sen. Jim Dabakis has enjoyed the mantle of front-runner and the conventional wisdom has been that he’s a shoo-in to make it into the general election.

But the latest poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics has some trends that should be cause for alarm, perhaps even panic, in the Dabakis camp and could point to a wild, frenzied finish to the primary.

The big picture was unsettling enough — state Sen. Luz Escamilla cut her deficit to Dabakis from 17 percentage points (in a June poll commissioned by the Alliance For A Better Utah) to just 3 points, and third-place Erin Mendenhall has closed the gap from 21 points to just 7. (The earlier poll results had the gaps at 4 percentage points for Escamilla and 8 points for Mendenhall.)

Digging further into the numbers, we can see where and to some extent why he’s lost ground and also why it may be difficult for him to stop the bleeding.

Dabakis had a ceiling

Dabakis is known as an outspoken showman, so it’s not surprising he is the best-known of the candidates. In the June poll, a third of those surveyed were unsure of their opinion on Dabakis, while twice as many didn’t know what they thought of the other candidates.

It was easier for Dabakis to move down than up and, in the six weeks since, that’s what happened as some of those initially backing Dabakis have been peeled away.

Hemorrhaging on two fronts

Comparing the June poll with the July numbers, we can see where the challengers have gained the most ground — one group is surprising, the other perhaps less so.

(It’s worth noting, before I go too far, that whenever we dig into subgroups of a poll the sample size is smaller and, consequently, the margins of error are larger.)

His biggest nosedive came among Democrats, 42% of whom said they were supporting Dabakis in June. But now that figure stands at just 26% — a huge chunk out of the front-runner’s base.

Mendenhall appears to have picked up their support, climbing 11 percentage points among Democrats, along with Escamilla, who jumped up 9 points, while David Garbett gained 6.

Women also have moved away. While Dabakis’ support among men has been steady, his support among women fell from 29% to 17%, while Mendenhall gained 8 points, Garbett 7 and Escamilla 6.

The female vote could prove pivotal for another reason.

The undecided deciders

Overall, 26% of voters surveyed said they had not decided who they would vote for — technically putting “undecided” ahead of all the candidates (previously the poll put the number at 28%). Normally, we might be inclined to dismiss the undecided voters — if they haven’t made up their mind by now, there’s a good chance many just won’t vote.

But that may be a mistake this time, because the poll also found that Salt Lake City voters are intensely interested in the race. Asked to rate their level of interest in the contest on a scale from one to 10, not one respondent rated it lower than a seven, and 80% rated their interest at an eight or higher.

If we take people at their word, they want to vote but just haven’t made up their minds.

That makes it more likely we’ll see late movement in the race which, if it comes, will likely come from the three largest blocs of undecided voters — women, Republicans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Nearly a third of women have still not made up their mind about the race (compared to a quarter of men). It’s the largest subgroup of undecided voters, but could be a wash. Despite Dabakis losing support among women, he still garners 17%, basically even (given the margin of error) with Escamilla at 19% and just slightly ahead of Mendenhall at 13%.

The other two groups are more interesting, because it’s possible that the outcome of the primary could be swayed by late-breaking Latter-day Saint and Republican voters — not the groups you normally think of determining elections in liberal Salt Lake City.

The poll found that 32% of self-described active or somewhat active church members remain undecided and 47% of Republican voters have not committed (previously the numbers were 35% and 50% respectively).

“It would be wrong to say Republicans will not have an impact on this race,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “They’re a huge segment of the population that is still trying to decide.”

The reason for the indecision among GOP voters could be that candidates have been trying to outdo each other on the issues important to liberal voters — air quality, affordable housing and the inland port — but there hasn’t been much discussion of the issue most important issue to Republican voters: taxes.

Twenty-three percent of Republican voters said taxes are the most important issue in the race, compared to 1% of Democrats and 4% of unaffiliated voters. For both of those other groups, air quality was the most important issue. (Previously the poll said 22% of GOP voters cited taxes as the most important issue.)

Why does it matter?

Turnout varies, but it’s expected that Republicans will make up nearly one in five voters and church members will be more than a quarter of the electorate.

That leaves a lot of people left to make up their minds and, if they move, who benefits? Right now, those LDS voters are favoring Garbett (12%), Escamilla (17%) and Mendenhall (18%). (In the earlier poll, Mendenhall got 15% among LDS voters.) Dabakis has just 4%.

It’s worth noting that Escamilla is the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among the front-runners and, if she wins in November, would be the first LDS mayor of Salt Lake City since Ted Wilson left office in 1985.

Likewise, Dabakis currently garners 6% support among Republicans, compared to 12% for both Mendenhall and Escamilla. (Both had 10% in the earlier poll numbers.)

And the winner is …

Your guess is as good as mine.

Even with voters already returning their mail-in ballots for the Aug. 13 primary, the field is so fluid and there are so many undecided voters that it’s possible any two of the top three contenders — Dabakis, Escamilla and Mendenhall — could survive the primary and Garbett even has an outside shot.

“I think there will be significant movement in the final week,” Perry predicted.

That makes the grassroots, get-out-the-vote work in these final days critical. And the primary contest that once looked like an easy win for the front-running Dabakis now looks like it will end up being a nail-biter.