Spencer Cox holds a big lead in Utah’s race for governor

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Gubernatorial candidates Chris Peterson and Spencer Cox both spoke at the Utah Foundation Anniversary Luncheon at the Grand America Hotel on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Republican nominee for governor, is cruising toward Election Day with a 28-point lead over Democrat Chris Peterson, whose name is still largely unfamiliar to the electorate, a new poll shows.

When asked for their opinion of Peterson, about 63% said they were unaware of the Democratic candidate, according to the survey released Monday by Y2 Analytics.

“That’s brutal,” said Quin Monson, a partner at the Salt Lake City polling firm. “I think [Peterson] is an interesting candidate and an interesting nominee and certainly smart and articulate, but he’s underfunded and unknown.”

By contrast, only 10% of those surveyed said they’re unfamiliar with Cox, who’s coming off a high-profile primary race and has spent seven years as lieutenant governor to Gov. Gary Herbert.

About 57% of the poll respondents indicated they were leaning toward voting for Cox as the state’s next governor, while Peterson trailed with about 29% support. Most of the remaining respondents expressed interest in another candidate. Only a handful said they were undecided, since the poll encouraged voters to choose from the available options.

Cox’s sizable lead tracks with past polling, such as a recent Utah Debate Commission survey that had him ahead of Peterson by about 35 percentage points. That poll had a much larger pool of undecided voters.

Recent campaign finance reports underscore Cox’s advantage, showing that the lieutenant governor has a bank balance of roughly $500,000 to Peterson’s $52,000.

But the lieutenant governor’s campaign manager said they’re not declaring victory before the votes are counted.

“Anything is possible in 2020, and we are taking nothing for granted,” the lieutenant governor’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, said in a prepared statement. “Spencer will continue working hard, both as a candidate and lieutenant governor, up until polls close to earn every vote.”

Peterson has been trying to introduce himself to voters with a series of gubernatorial debates and forums and by speaking up about the state’s coronavirus response, which he has characterized as “a failure."

In a Monday news conference outside the Utah Capitol, the Democrat released his 11-point plan for combatting the pandemic — which included imposing a temporary statewide mask mandate; ensuring that there are at least 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people across Utah; and making sure manufacturing and meatpacking plant workers, teachers, grocery store workers and other front-line workers have access to personal protective gear.

Citing a recent auditor’s report about the state’s no-bid contracting during the pandemic, Peterson also called on Utah leaders to investigate further and urged Cox to disclose any campaign donations he’s received from individuals or companies that might have benefited from the COVID-19 spending.

It is unacceptable for the government to waste taxpayer resources without transparency and accountability," Peterson said. "Utahns have the right to expect that their money is spent wisely and solely in the public interest.”

But the Y2 Analytics survey, conducted as Utah has experienced a surge in coronavirus cases, found that about 60% of voters approve of Herbert and about 54% have a positive impression of Cox, his chosen successor. Herbert’s favorability ratings are comparable to those from polling early this year, although Monson said they might have slipped a bit as the state grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions.

The similarity in approval numbers for Herbert and Cox echoes the close ties between the duo, Monson noted, adding that the lieutenant governor has done little to differentiate himself from his boss during the campaign.

“He has not deviated from Herbert’s policies very much,” said Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. “Especially on things like the COVID-19 response, he has been very, very reticent to say anything contrary to what the governor said.”

Though nearly two-thirds of the poll respondents indicated they didn’t know Peterson, about 23% of the remainder said they viewed him favorably.

The survey suggested that many Utahns are optimistic about the state’s economy, while they’re more skeptical about the nation as a whole. Most of the respondents said they think the state economy is improving or staying the same, with only 23% saying it’s getting worse. By contrast, 40% of the respondents said the national economy is declining.

Utah’s unemployment rates have been among the lowest in the nation during COVID-19.

The Y2 Analytics poll drew from online interviews with 1,214 likely Utah voters from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Monson said the polling firm conducted the survey for public release and wasn’t paid by any candidate or organization. Y2 Analytics has done some past work for Cox’s campaign, he disclosed, but is not actively polling for it now and doesn’t have any work lined up for the campaign.