Little things can win a political campaign. They can also lead to an electoral loss.
While it’s impossible to account for every variable, there are some parts of the equation more likely to spell victory for Republican Burgess Owens or Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in their toss up of a race in Utah’s 4th District. This highly watched congressional race is centered on the western portion of Salt Lake and Utah counties and parts of central Utah. It is conservative, but Democrats have found success.
This is Utah’s only battleground and one of the rare competitive House races in the nation. And in 2020, the tipping point could be third-party candidates, Utah County’s election system or even a national wave.
It’s happened before. Let’s start with the potential impact of other candidates in this race.
Flashback to election night 2012, when Republican Mia Love was favored to defeat Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah’s newly-created 4th District.
On election night, the result was too close to call, and eventually Matheson prevailed by just 768 votes.
Many Republicans blame the presence of Libertarian candidate Jim Vein, who pulled in 6,439 votes, for Love’s narrow loss.
Republican strategist Dave Hansen, who managed Love’s successful campaigns in 2014 and 2016 as well as her narrow 2018 defeat to McAdams, says Owens has ample reason to worry about the Libertarian candidates, who are likely to attract some votes that would otherwise go his way.
Hansen suggests Owens might be able to protect the siphoning of votes from his right flank with a high-profile endorsement from a prominent Libertarian.
“Not all of the Libertarian votes would go to Burgess, probably about 1 to 2%,” said Hansen.
“Owens could boost those numbers with a push,” he added, but it may be too late with about a week to go until Election Day.
Broderick’s endorsement of McAdams might have the same effect, keeping moderate voters in his column.
Of the four elections since the creation of the district, the two Democratic wins have been incredibly close — decided by 768 and 694 votes, respectively. The two GOP wins, both by Love, were much wider.
There was no third-party spoiler in 2018 when McAdams squeaked past Love. Many of her supporters grouse about long lines on election night and election problems in Republican-heavy Utah County as a reason for her narrow defeat. Had Love been able to squeeze just 800 more votes out of Utah County, she’d be finishing her third term in Congress, possibly running for a 4th.
Utah County shouldn’t run into the same problems this year. New County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner says she has remedied many of the issues that plagued past elections.
“We spent a lot of time updating and ensuring that our voter rolls were accurate. There were as many as 20,000 ballots returned undeliverable to us in previous elections,” Gardner said. That’s about 10% of the Utah County ballots. In a close election, that might prove to be decisive.
“We had a ton of people showing up at the polls on Election Day and casting provisional ballots because they never got their ballot because their addresses were wrong,” she said.
Utah County also changed to prepaid postage on ballots; voters previously had to use their own stamps.
Those two changes will make it easier for voters to cast their ballots. In a GOP-heavy area, that should be advantageous to Owens.
Another factor to consider is how the national political environment may affect down-ballot races. In 2018, Utah’s 4th District was thought to be a “reach district” for Democrats, one that would only flip away from the Republicans if the Democratic tide was big enough. Sure enough, the “blue wave” that materialized may have helped McAdams carry the majority Republican district.
This year is again shaping up to be favorable to Democrats. Joe Biden is favored to win the popular vote and the Electoral College over President Donald Trump. Democrats are also slight favorites to win control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House.
Independent candidate Evan McMullin captured nearly 22% of the Utah vote in 2016, which Wasserman says makes it hard to project what will happen in the state this year.
“It’s tough to gauge because Utah is such a strange case. Trump’s percentage of the vote is going to be much higher than in ’16, but his margin over Biden will likely be smaller than it was over Clinton,” he said.