How to explain President Donald Trump’s big improvements in key areas of Utah

President-elect Joe Biden lost the state, but had a better showing than Hillary Clinton did four years ago.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) President Donald Trump listens to a reporter's question after awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to Olympic gold medalist and former University of Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Washington.

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President Donald Trump improved his showing in Utah over the 2016 election, boosting his share of the vote by 13 points. That’s a significant swing toward Trump in the last four years, and some parts of Utah saw some of the biggest shifts toward Trump in the entire nation.

According to a New York Times’ analysis, the Provo-Orem area moved toward Trump by more than 5 points from 2016 to 2020, while Ogden-Clearfield shifted in his direction by 4.5%. A lot of that change can be explained by the absence of a viable third-party candidate on the ballot since Evan McMullin picked up 21.5% of the vote in 2016. Without that option, Utah had the largest decline in third-party voting in the nation in 2020.

While it is true those areas moved further into the Republican column this year, Trump still underperformed on the ballot when compared to other recent GOP presidential candidates. Worse news for Trump and the GOP, President-elect Joe Biden did better than Hillary Clinton.

Figures provided by Brigham Young University political scientist Adam Brown show Trump’s raw vote total jumped 89% in Utah County and 64% in Weber County.

Impressive, sure. But Biden saw his numbers skyrocket in those places compared to the Democratic ticket in 2016. He saw a 76% increase in Weber County and an astonishing 167% jump in Utah County.

Brown said the lack of a prominent third-party candidate and higher-than-usual turnout accounted for the change.

“Trump’s share in Utah County among those who voted for a major party nominee fell from 78% in 2016 to 72%,” Brown said in an email interview. “In Weber County, Trump’s share among those who voted for a major party nominee fell from 64% to 62%. Obviously, the thing driving these decreases is the removal of McMullin’s voters in 2016, but it sheds some light on what happened.”

Turnout was up significantly in these counties as well. Utah County saw a 41% growth from four years ago while Weber County was up 31%.

“Those new votes had to go somewhere,” he said.

Brown said any analysis of what happened in November in Utah is difficult if you just use 2016 as a comparison. He calls 2016 in Utah a “hot mess” because of McMullin’s performance. But, if you factor in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections, you see that Biden won more votes in Weber and Utah counties than any Democratic presidential candidate in a generation.

“Did Trump gain ground in these two counties? Maybe, if you count it a certain way. But he was still well behind other Republican candidates. What we really learned from 2020 was how many votes Trump would have won in these areas if not for McMullin,” said Brown.

Even though Biden outperformed other recent Democratic candidates, he didn’t help Democratic candidates further down the ballot. Rep. Ben McAdams was swamped by Republican Burgess Owens in the Utah County portion of his 4th Congressional District, which led to his ouster after one term. In fact, the only significant gain Democrats made in November was picking up one seat in the Utah House.

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