The two GOP front-runners in the hotly contested primary race for Utah governor appear to be neck-and-neck, a new poll shows, with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox enjoying a slight advantage as ballots begin to show up in voters’ mailboxes.

Capturing roughly 32% support, Cox was the favorite among a pool of 500 Utah voters who planned to cast ballots in the four-way Republican primary, according to the poll from Suffolk University and The Salt Lake Tribune. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman came in second, with 30% saying they would vote for him if the election were held today, but he trailed Cox by an amount that was within the poll’s margin of error.

Fourteen percent said they’d get behind former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, while 8% went for former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright. Seventeen percent hadn’t made up their minds.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Those results include about 130 respondents who aren’t currently registered Republicans but plan to adopt the designation in time for the June 30 primary — following in the footsteps of former Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis. The liberal lawmaker recently switched his party affiliation so he could help choose the GOP nominee for governor and encouraged his sizable social media following to do the same.

In the new poll, Cox’s lead expands among the survey’s roughly 370 registered Republican respondents, who supported him by 32% to Huntsman’s 25%. Hughes’ popularity increases to about 17% within this group of voters, and another 9% preferred Wright.

Huntsman is more popular with unaffiliated voters and Democrats who say they will vote in the Republican Party — 42% of those participating in the poll favored the former governor, compared with 30% backing Cox.

The results suggest that the contest between Cox and Huntsman could come down to the wire, said pollster David Paleologos, who directs the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

“It’s clear this is a two-person race between Cox and Huntsman. Cox has stronger support among core Republicans while Huntsman needs a broader coalition to overtake Cox,” he wrote in an email. “The most powerful people right now are the voters for Hughes and Wright who may rotate to one of the top two in the 11th hour and tip the scales one way or the other.”

Suffolk University conducted the poll by calling landlines and cellphones from June 4 to 7, just before election officials began sending out primary ballots Tuesday.

The findings largely match the results of other recent polls, although the surveys conducted by Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics and UtahPolicy.com/KUTV had Cox with a bigger lead over Huntsman and Hughes gaining more ground on both of them.

A spokesman for the Hughes campaign contested the results of the Tribune/Suffolk University survey, arguing that the primary race question should not have incorporated so many responses from voters who aren’t currently registered Republicans.

“Publishing this poll as ballots are arriving in mailboxes is completely irresponsible and could unfairly influence the outcome of the election,” spokesman Greg Hartley wrote in a statement. “It assumes that 27% — approximately 100,000 voters — will be switching their party affiliation to cast a ballot in this Republican primary. The possibility of that happening is about as credible as the results of this poll.”

The Tribune’s survey asked respondents if they planned to vote in the Republican primary and then about their current party registration. Non-Republican voters were only included in questions about the GOP governor’s contest if they confirmed their intent to switch their party affiliation before Election Day.

Voters who want to change their party affiliation can do so online by June 19, which is also the deadline to register to vote. Unaffiliated voters still can register as a Republican through Election Day, though not online, according to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

“I understand the frustration of a campaign that is polling in third place with only three weeks to election day," said Paleologos, responding to the criticism from the Hughes campaign. "The question of how many people will switch is fluid, but we do know that between June 4 and June 7 some Democrats and many more independents said they plan to switch parties and vote in the upcoming Republican primary. That’s what they said. Calling those Utahns liars is probably not a thoughtful approach to winning over voters.”

The race to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, the nation’s longest-serving sitting governor, is playing out against the backdrop of a global pandemic, which has reshaped the way the gubernatorial hopefuls are campaigning and how they’re pitching themselves to Utahns. Republican voters often gravitate toward candidates who emphasize limited government and cutting taxes, but the current circumstances have likely reordered their priorities, said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah.

“Oftentimes, as a Republican, being conservative and being an outsider would be bigger factors, but I think what we’re seeing this time is that because of the context of this election, maybe government experience is helpful,” Burbank said in an interview.

The Suffolk University poll supports Burbank’s analysis. Among likely Republican primary voters, proven government experience beat out other attributes — including being an unabashed conservative, being a political outsider and having big ideas — as the most important quality in the state’s next governor.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

During the pandemic, Cox has helped steer the state’s coronavirus response, a position that has enabled him to showcase his leadership skills and cast himself as something close to an incumbent, Burbank said. The emphasis on experience also plays to the advantage of Huntsman, who was twice elected as Utah governor, the professor added.

Accordingly, both candidates have been playing up their credentials.

“In a time of economic crisis, Utah voters know Governor Huntsman has a proven record of economic leadership and his plan to double the Utah economy over the next decade is exactly what our state needs from the next governor,” Huntsman’s campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, said in a statement.

He added that the Suffolk University poll shows the gap between Cox and Huntsman has closed and that the race is a “dead heat.”

But Cox’s team sounded confident about their position heading into the primary home stretch.

“With the many challenges our state has faced in recent months, Utahns want proven leadership,” Cox, who’s running alongside Sen. Deidre Henderson, said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Just as Governor Herbert led us out of the Great Recession, Senator Henderson and I will bring proven leadership and experience to meet the challenges ahead and ensure Utah recovers better than before.”

When likely Republican voters were asked which gubernatorial candidate they trusted to lead them in a crisis, Cox and Huntsman were again the top picks, capturing 30% and 29% of respondents respectively. Hughes was next with 13%, and Wright followed, with about 6% of survey-takers saying they’d rely on him in an emergency.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Kendell Eliason, a Republican who participated in The Tribune’s survey, said he plans to vote for Cox because of his service in the Herbert administration and because both he and the lieutenant governor come from farming families.

Eliason, 43, of Smithfield, said he also appreciates Cox’s accessibility during the coronavirus pandemic, explaining that he’s seen the candidate in television appearances and engage the public on Twitter.

“He’s down-to-earth, where he’s not above you,” Eliason said. “I think that really relates well with regular people.”

But Cox’s rivals have complained that Herbert politicized the COVID-19 pandemic by appointing his chosen successor to lead the state’s coronavirus response.

“I do think that if you’re one of the candidates and you’re anointed chair of the state’s response, it gives you opportunities to show leadership or inform people about the state’s response,” Hughes said Tuesday.

Hughes entered the race polling in the single-digits, well behind his better-known rivals, and he acknowledges he had a significant deficit to overcome. Although he’s still trailing Huntsman and Cox, the former House speaker said his campaign has built momentum while others have stagnated.

“We feel there’s real grassroots support. There’s a lot of things happening on the ground. That’s pretty exciting, so we think that the undecided pool will continue to break our way,” Hughes said in a Tuesday phone interview. “I think the only ticket you see that’s really moving in that upward trajectory is us.”

Wright said the survey demonstrates that Utahns are “ready for new leadership,” noting that Cox and Huntsman have both failed to garner support from even a third of their own party.

“We are hopeful that now, as ballots hit the mailboxes, Utahns will get to know Thomas Wright,” he said in a prepared statement.

The margin of error in the survey of 500 likely Republican primary voters is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, while the margin error among the 366 currently registered GOP respondents is plus or minus 5.1 percentage points.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, the chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors