Utah’s Independent American Party is seeing explosive growth, but it’s unclear what’s driving it

Orem • A quaint house sits in a quiet neighborhood that looks like any other family residence. Inside, however, the home acts as a meeting place for an inexplicable political phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed.

Owned by Greg Duerden, the home is a campaign hub for Utah’s third largest political party: the Utah Independent American Party, which has seen a dramatic influx of new voters in recent years.

The party’s membership has more than quadrupled in the past four years, jumping from 10,601 at the end of 2015 to about 50,000 at last count.

The explosive growth of this ultraconservative organization — whose most famous member nationally is Nevada rancher and federal government critic Cliven Bundy — can’t be explained by campaign spending on advertising, outreach or conventions.

According to campaign finance records, the party spent $1,730 on advertising between 2016 and 2018, less than the dominant Utah Republican Party spent on just one round of printing in 2018.

David Else, Utah chairman of the Independent American Party, believes that the election of President Donald Trump pushed some voters in a more conservative direction as supporters across the country recognized the need to shake up the political establishment.

The Independent American Party, the third-largest political party in Utah, has grown by 375% in recent years.

“We’re not going to say anything against the major parties," Else said, “but the statistics show there is definite disillusionment.”

He also postulates that conservatives in Utah don’t have the same level of attachment to the Republican Party as they used to, so they are looking for a change of political scenery.

The Independent American Party certainly provides that, as it believes the role of government should be limited to the most basic functions, like national security; wants God brought back into government and schools; and enshrines the quotations of Ezra Taft Benson, the former Mormon leader, alongside those of the Founding Fathers.

Duerden, Independent American candidate for governor, says the party wants “the disaffected, the unaffiliated, the independent people of Utah to come in and feel like they have a home” there.

Justin Lee, Utah’s state elections director, has a different take on the matter.

“I’ve heard some people who wonder if the name of the party — specifically the word independent — confuses voters who don’t necessarily understand they are registering for a party instead of as an independent,” Lee said.

In Utah, voters cannot register as an independent and instead must register as “unaffiliated” if they do not want to be associated with a particular party. Unaffiliated makes up the second largest bloc of voters in Utah, about 620,000.

Jay DeSart, chairman of the history and political science department at Utah Valley University, echoed Lee by saying that the Independent American’s rapid growth is likely due to voter confusion about the party name.

“The most logical explanation is that people are confusing ‘Independent American Party’ for just claiming to be an independent,” DeSart said.

A third of voters see themselves as independents when asked which party they identify with, even though many tend to behave in partisan ways when casting their vote.

“With that in mind, my guess is that we’re seeing in this data evidence of the tendency of many voters to claim to be independent,” DeSart said. “They don’t necessarily understand that there’s actually a party that uses the term ‘independent’ in the name.”

DeSart also pointed to a growing disenchantment within the Republican Party in Utah, noting it is “no secret” that a number of Republicans were not thrilled with Trump being their presidential candidate. During the 2016 primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz “trounced Trump in the Utah caucuses,” he noted, and independent Evan McMullin pulled nearly a quarter of a million votes away from Trump, finishing right on the heels of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Will Christensen, national chairman for the Independent American Party and co-founder of the Utah party, says that Trump’s “common sense” policies on the economy, North Korea and the return of U.S. industry will spur his party’s members to vote for Trump in November.

The party has yet to elect its first candidate to any office in Utah and its membership numbers remain a fraction of the two major parties. Republicans had more than 768,000 registered members at the end of 2019 and Democrats nearly 220,000, compared with the Independent American’s roughly 50,000.

But if its rate of growth keeps up into the future, it could give the Democratic Party a run for its money — at least on paper.

If the theory is true that voters’ misunderstanding about the name is driving them to register as Independent Americans, the party likely still couldn’t get candidates elected to office. But if its growth is caused instead by disillusionment with rival parties, as Independent American leaders believe, there is no telling what impact it might have on the state’s political landscape.