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Robert Gehrke: Burgess Owens has a lead, but Utah’s 4th District race could be a rerun of 2018

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

If you’re watching the votes being counted in the 4th District race between Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican challenger Burgess Owens and having flashbacks, you aren’t alone.

And you aren’t wrong.

In 2018, it was the same story with McAdams and Republican Rep. Mia Love.

Then, McAdams held a small lead on election night — 2.8% — stretched the margin out slightly to 3 percent the next day and to as much 3.5% the day after, building a 7,128-vote lead, which looked pretty good for him.

Then things turned around, and Love cut McAdams' lead to 4,906 votes, then to 1,229 votes, performing well enough that she cut the lead to 873. McAdams got a little bump from Salt Lake County to stretch it out to 1,002, but fell behind by 419 the next day.

After Utah County counted its final votes, Love led by 1,513. It wasn’t until the final count from Salt Lake County later that day when McAdams dominated that he pushed ahead by 739. The final margin ended up being 694 votes.

This year, McAdams led on election night, stretched it out the next day, and has seen that lead whittled away and now trails by 1,780 votes.

So, as Love did two years ago, Owens did better on votes counted after Election Day than he did on the votes counted on and immediately after Election Day and has had three really, really good days in a row.

Based on the basic model — that is if the estimated remaining votes come in as the votes have so far — Owens probably wins.

But all three of those days have come predominantly from precincts that tilt Republican. So we have to wonder if the remaining ballots tilt more toward McAdams.

So I looked at the precinct-level data again, this time comparing which precincts had high or low turnout to where those same precincts currently stand, so we can get a better idea which precincts might have a lot of votes and which might not.

Take Millcreek Precinct 4. Two years ago, they had 86% turnout, about 7% above average. This year they are sitting at 77%, which is below average. So to get back to that precinct’s 2018 level of turnout, we would expect there to be about 151 votes in that precinct, which McAdams is currently winning 75% to 20%.

Complicated, I know, but stick with me.

If we do the same calculation for all 444, some precincts favor Owens — like West Jordan 80 with a projected 91 votes left and currently a 53% to 40% Owens tilt. But far more of them are in solidly blue precincts like South Salt Lake 7 and 14, Millcreek 9 and 18 and Sandy 45.

It’s possible that voters in those blue precincts just didn’t vote this time. Maybe it was the medical marijuana initiative that brought them out in 2018 and they stayed home this year. I’m not sure why that would be, but if that’s the case, McAdams probably loses.

Or, did they vote at roughly the same overall rate and the ballots are still being counted? And if that’s the case, McAdams still has a path to victory.

If we project they end up this year right around where they were in relation to the rest of the county, we would anticipate 9,005 votes remaining for McAdams and 5,280 for Owens — which would give McAdams a final margin of 1,938 votes, minus a couple hundred votes remaining in Utah County.

Again, this all gets into a very murky area. It relies on several assumptions, estimates and razor-thin margins.

It assumes that about 15,300 of the remaining 29,853 votes remaining in Salt Lake County are in the 4th District. It assumes that the estimate from Utah County that they have about 700 provisional ballots left is close to correct.

But mainly it assumes the margins so far continue as they have. Again, if Owens' performance continues the way it has the last few days, he wins by a few hundred votes. And, if it plays out like it did in 2018, where the provisional ballots went to McAdams in a huge number, it’s much better for him.

Utah County has been updating its counts at 3 p.m. Salt Lake County is expected to update about an hour later with what should be most of its remaining votes — although others may be straggling in by mail or “cured” in order to be counted.

So we’ll wait and see if this is a repeat of 2018 or if Owens has the votes to flip the script.

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