Gehrke: How a changing Utah population may lead to a more politically balanced state

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

What might it take for Utah to change from a solidly red state politically to a more purplish hue? Perhaps it’s just a matter of time.

We all know Utah’s population has been exploding. It was the fastest-growing state in 2016 and has been among the fastest growing states for decades. Between 2000 and 2010, just two states — Nevada and Arizona — saw more growth.

But dig deeper into those trends and forecast what they mean for our future, and you’ll see a strikingly different Utah than we’ve seen in the past — socially, ethnically, religiously and even politically.

Since their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has dominated Utah’s culture and politics.

Initially, that meant Democrats commanded Utah’s statehouse. Fueled in part by national Republican efforts to stamp out polygamy, Democrats held 57 of the 61 seats in Utah’s first state Legislature.

Over the next several decades, control swung back and forth wildly, until stabilizing during the Great Depression — an evolution that Brigham Young University professor Adam Brown tracks in his soon-to-be-released book, “Utah Politics and Government.”

It wasn’t until around 1970 that Utah moved decidedly to the Republicans, fueled by social issues: abortion, civil rights, anti-communism and later, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Brown writes.

Mormons, generally, are the most committed voting bloc the GOP has, and in Utah it is even more pronounced: 78 percent of Utah Mormons identify as Republicans.

Utah’s long-standing majority Mormon population, their allegiance to the Republican Party and their inclination to actually turn out and vote, have combined to create a Mormon colossus standing astride Utah politics.

But Brown also points to demographic trends that may slowly erode that dominance.

As a strong economy has attracted more and more outsiders, the state’s population is growing faster than the church’s membership.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Utahns who identify as members of the church dropped from 58 percent to 55 percent.

That’s not huge, but if the trend continues, we may soon see less than half the state belonging to the church for the first time since early pioneer days.

The other big driver is the growth of Utah’s Hispanic population. According to Census data, between 2000 and 2010, the state’s Hispanic population grew by a whopping 78 percent and Hispanics account for 30 percent of the entire statewide population growth in that time.

The trend has been especially pronounced in Utah’s older cities. Taylorsville, for example, saw 3,909 Hispanics move in, as 3,205 white residents moved out between 2000 and 2010. And Salt Lake City saw 7,383 new Hispanics, losing 3,853 white residents in that period.

Hispanics currently make up 13 percent of Utah’s population — up from 5 percent in 1990.

It is a huge factor in the ethnic diversification of the state. According to research by Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, ethnic minorities make up a little more than 20 percent of the population today. By 2050, that will climb to 30 percent.

Why does that matter? As the population diversifies, voting patterns that have dictated Utah politics for as long as I’ve been alive could shift.

Brown cites the 2016 Utah Colleges Exit Poll which found that 81 percent of active Mormons identified as Republicans, compared to just 28 percent of non-Mormons. On top of that, 60 percent of white Utahns identified as Republicans, compared to just 26 percent of Hispanics.

“Eventually, this growth and diversification may threaten the Republican Party’s decades-long dominance,” Brown wrote. “If these left-leaning demographic groups — that is non-Mormons and Hispanics — continue increasing their share of Utah’s population, they may someday change Utah’s partisan balance even if white Mormons remain solidly Republican.”

Some on the right probably consider this wishful thinking. There’s no question that the change, if it comes, will be glacial, perhaps not in my lifetime. And, Brown notes, it also depends on one other factor — whether these new Utahns vote.

But as we peer into the crystal ball and see Utah’s future, it is likely to be very different from the past, and that slow shift to a more diverse population and toward political balance, a shift from red to purple, will be good for our state.