Analysis: The factors that may swing Utah’s tight congressional race between Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens

Rep. Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens.

A key number that could shape the high-profile race between incumbent Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican nominee Burgess Owens is 38,950.

That’s how many voters in Utah’s 4th Congressional District cast a ballot in 2016 but stayed home two years later. You’ll remember McAdams defeated Republican Rep. Mia Love in 2018 by fewer than 700 votes.

According to data provided by L2, a New York-based political data company, most of those who voted in 2016 but sat out 2018 were either Republicans or unaffiliated voters.

  • 17,136 were registered Republicans.

  • 15,222 were not registered with any political party.

  • 4,791 were Democrats.

That illustrates the tightrope McAdams is walking in his bid for another term. Turnout in presidential election years is usually higher, so there’s a chance those Utahns who did not cast a ballot two years ago will return this year. If Owens can increase Republican turnout in November, that would be a significant boost to his bid to unseat McAdams. While the freshman congressman needs to get Democrats and independent voters to strongly break his way while peeling off a not-insignificant number of Republicans.

A Deseret News poll released Monday gave McAdams a 4-point lead over Owens at 45-41%, with 11% of voters undecided, which suggests we may be on track for another close election.

That makes sense. The average winning margin in the four elections since Utah’s 4th was created is fewer than 11,000 votes. If you take out Love’s 34,000 vote win over Democrat Doug Owens in 2016, the other three elections have been decided by an average of just 2,991 votes.

Data provided to The Salt Lake Tribune by Republican Dan Hemmert, a state senator who started to run for the Republican nomination in the 4th District but ultimately chose not to, tells a more nuanced story. The data came from national Republican groups hoping to persuade him to run for the seat as well as his own analysis.

Turnout among Utah County Republicans in 2018 was just 50%, according to Hemmert’s figures. Republicans had a more robust turnout in Sanpete County (73%), Salt Lake County (69%) and Juab County (67%).

Those numbers from Hemmert’s abandoned effort showed a definite lack of enthusiasm among Republican voters in 2018, which severely hampered Love’s reelection bid. While 85% of GOP voters identified as “hard GOP” or core voters cast a ballot that year, just 47% of “weak GOP” voters followed suit. On the other side, 88% of “hard Democrats,” 64% of “weak Democrats” and 57% of swing voters voted.

Don’t forget there’s another group who did not cast a ballot in either the 2016 or 2018 election — new 4th District voters. That includes residents who have moved into the district in the past two years and 18-year-olds who are newly eligible to vote.

“Those voters would skew toward Democrats,” said David Wasserman, house editor of the Cook Political Report, which handicaps close races. “That group includes secular suburbanites who just moved to the area and the youngest voters. There are plenty of voters who turned 18 in the last few years.”

Wasserman has rated the race as a “toss-up” between McAdams and Owens, based partially on the strength Owens has shown in recent polling.

There’s another factor that could loom large. What’s on the ballot could help determine who participates or in this case, what is not on the ballot. Last cycle, Utah had three high-profile ballot initiatives — medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and an independent redistricting commission — and that benefited McAdams.

“If you add those who didn’t vote in 2018 with those who came out to vote on the ballot initiatives, especially the medical marijuana issue, that was the ballgame,” says veteran GOP strategist Dave Hansen, who was in charge of Love’s successful 2014 and 2016 campaigns as well as the narrow loss in 2018.

“We figured there was going to be a drop-off in voters, which we thought we could withstand. We weren’t ready for the surge of voters who came out for the ballot initiatives.”

Turnout in the 4th District in the presidential years of 2012 and 2016 was comparable, with 245,277 voters who participated in 2012 and 274,569 who voted four years later.

But In the midterm election year of 2014, turnout dropped to 147,168 while the 2018 election saw voter participation at 269,271, which is on par with 2016. The only difference was the addition of those ballot initiatives.

But, Hansen admits that’s not the only factor that determined the winner two years ago.

“If you ask 20 different people what led to the outcome in 2018, you’ll get 20 different answers, and all of them are right,” said Hansen, laughing.

Do more Utah County Republicans vote this time around? How does the presidential contest shape the electorate? How many new voters participate? The answer to those questions could well determine who wins Utah’s tightest race.