Robert Gehrke: Can Utah become a swing state? Maybe, just maybe, in my lifetime.

Robert Gehrke

Nate Silver, the data guru behind fivethirtyeight.com, got my attention when he offered his thoughts on the possibility that Utah could turn into a political battleground.

“I do think people underrate the chance that Utah could become a swing state in another couple cycles,” Silver tweeted last week.

Sorry to Nate and hopeful Democrats in Utah, but no.

It’s not the first time Silver has postulated that Utah could be the next Western state to move away from the Republican Party, and there is logic to his thinking. Demographically speaking, he said a few years ago, Utah is a purple state that votes Republican, and he’s got a point.

“It’s very suburban, very middle-class, very educated,” said James Curry, a University of Utah political science professor, “but” — and this is the king of all buts — “the religious identity of the voters makes a difference.”

It turns out that most Utahns — still about 60% statewide — belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you don’t know about the church, I can send a couple young people to your house who would love to tell you all about it.

What they won’t tell you but has been true for the better part of four decades is that Latter-day Saints are the most reliably Republican voters in the country.

No, they don’t like President Donald Trump, at least compared to his predecessors. He finished below 46% in the state in 2016, polls show his approval rating is still stuck in that same vicinity, and — Silver points out — young people were more likely to vote against Trump.

But that doesn’t mean they like Democrats. In 2016, more than one in five Utahns cast a protest vote for third-party candidate Evan McMullin.

More important, unless Trump has remade the GOP in his image, he is an aberration.

“What it would take [for Utah to change] is a prolonged cycle after cycle after cycle of the Republicans nominating someone like Trump and doubling down in that direction and the Democratic Party continuing to nominate moderates,” Curry said. “Maybe, over a long period of time, you get to that, but that scenario seems unlikely.”

And Democrats are starting out in a Grand Canyon-sized hole. You may know the history. No Democrat has won statewide since Jan Graham was reelected as attorney general in 1996. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

And as dramatic as those facts are, they understate the futility of Utah’s Democratic Party. Since 1994, no Utah Democrat has come within 15 points of winning a statewide race for governor, U.S. Senate or president, and the average margin of victory in those 21 races has been 36 points.

In neighboring swing states, it’s a different story. In Arizona, Republicans hold a 10-point (and falling) edge in those Big Three statewide races since 2000. In Nevada, it’s 5 points, thanks to a couple of blowouts. In Colorado, Democrats have had a slight edge since 2000.

Utah can’t be a swing state until Democrats win one or at least finish close. The party has been chipping away at the huge Republican advantage in the Legislature and they could gain a few more in November.

Change will come, but not in a couple cycles — more like a couple decades. Here are some forces that will shape it:


Over the past decade, Utah was the fastest growing state in the nation with a 16% increase in population. Many of the 447,000 new Utahns got here the old-fashioned way — they were born here. The birth rate is slowing, however, among white Utahns and accelerating in the younger Latino population.

More people are moving to Utah, as well, and those less-homogenous migrants are expected to dilute the LDS and Republican dominance in the state over time.

The change could be accelerated if young Latter-day Saints are less conservative than their parents. Anecdotally that seems to be true, but the data is inconclusive.

Political imperatives

Two topics I touched on — growth and immigration — are emerging issues that will drive our politics in the coming decades, and tend to favor Democrats.

“Growth” bundles a host of issues and challenges — housing, education, air quality, open space, water, wages and climate change — where Republicans have traditionally shunned government intervention.

Nationally, Democrats hold a big advantage when it comes to immigration, but Republicans in Utah have historically been at least somewhat more proactive on the issue.

The three ballot initiatives that passed recently — legalizing medical marijuana, expanding Medicaid and creating an independent redistricting commission — may indicate that a majority of Utah is more progressive, at least on those issues, than the legislators who refused for years to act on the proposals, meaning the task could be less about changing minds and more about changing habits.

The Montana model

Candidates matter and if you don’t believe it, look at Montana. In the past 20 years, Montana Democrats have won the governorship or U.S. Senate seats nine times in 12 races, but in the same span the party’s presidential nominee has lost the state by an average of 18 points.

They’ve done a remarkable job nominating candidates — like former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock — who appeal to the state’s blue-collar, mining-and-ranching, public lands, gun-rights voters, not the typical Democratic base.

Utah voters are different, obviously, but Democrats have not been able to find the candidates who can reach moderate LDS voters or rural constituents.

“If Democrats want to win more races in [Utah] they’d need a bunch of Ben McAdams clones,” Curry said.

In a way, McAdams, Utah’s 4th Congressional District representative, is a clone of former Rep. Jim Matheson, who patterned his career after his father, former Gov. Scott Matheson, the last Democrat to hold the office. The formula, however, has proven tricky to replicate.

So, yes, Utah’s politics are changing and those changes could accelerate if the party plays it right. But we’re still a long, long way from deep red Utah turning purple, not in the next few elections.

Perhaps, if I start taking better care of myself, it may come in my lifetime.