For the first time in nearly 50 years, Utah has a chance of sending someone other than a Republican to the U.S. Senate. A traditionally conservative state, Utah routinely elects Republicans by margins in excess of 30 points. But incumbent Senator Mike Lee is weaker than the average Republican, and his opponent, Evan McMullin, is no Democrat. McMullin is an independent candidate who has maintained a strong conservative streak and largely avoided being typecast as a “de facto liberal”. As more high-profile reach contests like Ohio and Florida have seen high-profile Democratic candidates garner attention, the Utah Senate race has mostly flown under the radar of national political observers.
Current polling suggests that the race is indeed closer than the 20-point win of Donald Trump in 2020. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average suggests an 8 point spread with Lee ahead of McMullin. With the help of Utah demographer and professor Jacob Rugh from Brigham Young University, Split Ticket will examine the underlying political coalitions and assess the possible outcomes of this election, which we rate as Likely Republican.
Red Wave, Red Ripple Or Purple Wave?
Looking at partisan registration data from the state, the following partisan splits are observed statewide:
- 50.4% registered as GOP
- 29.6% registered as No Party Affiliation (NPA)
- 14.2% registered as DEM
- 5.8% registered as Libertarian/Other Parties
These registration numbers show a daunting path ahead for McMullin. In addition to holding Democrats, he must demolish Lee among non-affiliated voters and earn a non-trivial amount of GOP crossover. Split Ticket’s analysis in this article will demonstrate that this is plausible but not probable.
Based on polling and fundamentals, Split Ticket has constructed three scenarios to use as benchmarks for the race’s outcome:
The above tables detail the necessary partisan splits among GOP, non-affiliated, Democratic, and third-party voters necessary for a Lee win of 16 points, a Lee win of around 8 points, and a hypothetical tie. The break-even point for McMullin is hitting 30% of registered Republicans in the state, and getting two-thirds of the non-affiliated vote. Utah’s unaffiliated voters tend to lean conservative, but this is caveated with the knowledge that Lee is not the strongest GOP incumbent in the state. The strongest evidence: the 2022 Senate primary. Mike Lee had a number of challengers and was held to only 62% as an incumbent – with much of the vote going to more moderate Becky Edwards.
Considering that GOP primaries are closed, meaning that only registered Republicans can participate, the election is a good barometer of GOP leaning enthusiasm for Lee.
Notably – Becky Edwards hits the 29.7% of registered Republicans that is observed in the Purple Wave scenario – just shy of McMullin’s victory mark. Edwards’s campaign criticized Lee for strongly aligning with Donald Trump’s hard right conservatism, which is relatively unpopular in Utah.
Many of the Edwards voters are moderates and soft conservatives who are registered GOP voters due to the state’s overwhelming Republican lean. In a state where the primary has determined the general election winner for every statewide race since 1996, it often leads to minority party entryism into the majority party’s political apparatus (like conservatives in Rhode Island). These moderates and soft conservatives might not fully identify as Democrats, but they feel sufficiently different from Republicans like Donald Trump and Mike Lee that they will exhibit notably “anti-Trump” voting patterns. It is through pulling these least-ideologically “Trumpian” Republicans that McMullin’s path lies.
Case Study: Provo
The archetypal “anti-Trump” Utah Republican voter lives in the city of Provo in Utah County. Provo is home to Brigham Young University, and by extension, the well-educated wing of the Mormon Church. McMullin first ran for president in 2016 as an independent appealing to more moralistic conservatives disgusted by Trump’s actions. Naturally, he did extremely well in Provo, winning it with a plurality of the vote while Hillary Clinton still posted a meager 19.2%. McMullin’s strongest precincts were the ones in the vicinity of BYU. This proved one thing – that many well-educated Mormon Republicans were not yet ready to vote for a Democrat. Four years later, McMullin endorsed Biden and roughly half of McMullin’s vote went to Biden (who got 37% versus Clinton’s 19%) and half went to Trump (who got 55% versus his 39% last time). Again, Biden won precincts near BYU, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so in the days of readily verifiable precinct results.
In a city like Provo, the Democratic Party is virtually nonexistent. A majority of the 37% of Provo residents voting for Biden are conservatives and Republicans. Looking at the 2022 Senate primary results, the roughly 17-point Lee win is very similar to Trump’s 2020 win. These are, in modern post-Trump terms, moderate Republicans rather than Democrats. While they delivered Biden a historic margin in 2020, they still backed Republican Governor Spencer Cox, a more traditionally conservative Utah Republican, by pre-Trump GOP margins. McMullin, with his consistent anti-Trump stance and classic style of Utah conservatism, is therefore as perfect a candidate as can be constructed to take advantage of this trend.
The 2016 election unleashed a sea change in Provo. Normally around 10 points redder than the state (even accounting for Mitt Romney’s Mormon appeal in 2012), 2016 was the first time the city was less Republican than the state. This continued in 2020, and Provo was again more anti-Lee than the state in the 2022 primary. According to Split Ticket projections, in a mid-range “red ripple” scenario as described above, it should be roughly 2 points more pro-McMullin than the state.
Looking at the above table for 2020, unaffiliated independent voters broke overwhelmingly for Biden, as they are estimated to have voted for him by a 2:1 margin. Actual Democrats and Democratic primary voters made up only 10% of the Provo electorate – more confirmation that the changing political dynamics are primarily manifesting as a weakening of the MAGA GOP brand among college-educated voters than a hard Democratic consolidation. McMullin, as an independent who has refused to caucus with either party if he wins, is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this.
These political dynamics are not just found in Provo. The entire Wasatch Front, where the vast majority of votes are cast in the state, is in political flux, as many formerly staunchly-GOP voters are either becoming independents or Democrats. Salt Lake City itself has been long gone for Republicans, but southern cities in the county of Salt Lake now also have sizeable anti-Trump votes, as do large swaths of Utah County. Cities similar to Provo include Bountiful in Davis County and Ogden in Weber County — if McMullin is winning statewide, it is likely he will win all three.
Comparing the anti-Trump maps, Lee’s potential support is weakest in southern Salt Lake County and in the Davis County cities stretching from Bountiful to Layton. These areas are home to the most cosmopolitan voters in the SLC metro, many of whom are more Republican than they “should be” compared to neighboring states Arizona and Colorado. If there is room for a non-Republican candidate to grow, the easiest path is in municipalities like West Jordan, South Jordan, Sandy, and Draper. An early test case of this was the 2012 divergence in Salt Lake County, when Mitt Romney won countywide by 20 while Democrat Ben McAdams won the county mayoral election by just under 10.
Comparing the Romney 2012 map to the 2022 primary map in Salt Lake, it can be seen that Becky Edwards’s support in South Salt Lake, Millcreek, and Holladay lines up very well with where Romney overperformed.
All of this adds up to the following foundations of the 2022 Lee vs. McMullin Senate race:
- A sizable portion of Utah Republicans are increasingly disaffected at the Trumpian direction of the party. This has continued through the 2022 Senate primary.
- These Utah Republicans are not remotely close to identifying as Democrats and would clearly vote for a “normal Republican” if given the chance.
- Evan McMullin’s refusal to caucus with Democrats, along with Senator Mitt Romney’s refusal to endorse Lee, have clouded his partisanship to the point where the Republicans in point 2 are not turned off by his candidacy.
- Utah Democrats have effectively sat out the race, acknowledging that a true moderate Democrat like Ben McAdams will not win statewide, and McAdams and other Democrats have de facto thrown their support to McMullin because he is the anti-Trump candidate.
All of these factors have allowed the staging of a “traditionalist vs. Trump” battle of conservatism in Utah that can be fought on much more even turf than is obvious at first glance. Thus, outlining the contours of the race, Split Ticket will examine in greater detail the three scenarios previously mentioned and what is required to achieve each.
Using Provo as a bellwether, the statewide partisan splits across three scenarios–red wave (Lee +16), red ripple (Lee +8, current polling average), and purple wave (Lee-McMulin tie), are listed below. McMullin’s path rests on consolidating all the Edwards voters, along with spiking Democratic and non-affiliated turnout. As individual demographic subgroup margins in a non-two-party race are somewhat difficult to predict, Split Ticket has analyzed the race in terms of turnout. This is viable because there is a nontrivial body of evidence for GOP support for McMullin, which is needed to make the race competitive. There is not, however, evidence of Democratic support for Mike Lee..
Looking at the 3 scenarios above, Democrats and independents have to hit 70% turnout statewide to tie. For comparison, the statewide turnout figure was 80% in 2020.
Under the Red Wave scenario (65% turnout), 81% of Republicans turn out, while Unaffiliated and Democratic voter turnout remains depressed, at 45% and 55%, respectively. In this scenario, McMullin does not get more progressive voters to turn out to vote for him as a self-styled “independent conservative” and former Republican, reflecting the fact that, this summer, only 57% of Democratic convention delegates endorsed him to run in place of Democratic candidate. Lee carries nearly 75% of Republicans, 30% of Independents, and 5% of Democrats, winning by 16 points, 55% – 39%, over McMullin. This scenario reflects what the Lee campaign has released through its internal polling, albeit these internals are somewhat far back in time.
The map here shows a Salt Lake composition similar to Biden’s victory, albeit with more solid McMullin margins in the more Mormon-heavy southern municipalities of Herriman, Riverton and Bluffdale. Provo and Bountiful are still Lee wins – along with West, Sandy, Holladay, and South Jordan which are absolute must-wins for McMullin.
Under the Red Ripple scenario (66% turnout), Utah mirrors national trends and some special elections wherein the Republican turnout advantage, while certainly present, is diminished, reducing what most thought to be a red wave election to a red ripple. Republican turnout is slightly lower, at 77%, Democratic turnout is up 12 points to 62%, and 50% of Independents turn out, an increase of 5 points. Lee receives slightly reduced support from 71% of Republicans, and the same support of 30% of Independents, and 5% of Democrats as in the Red Wave. What changes is turnout, and that alone cuts Lee’s advantage in half, from R+16 to R+8.
McMullin consolidates more of southern Salt Lake County here, flipping West Jordan, Sandy, and Holladay from the Red Wave scenario, and also North Salt Lake in Davis County. While Independent turnout is up less than half of Democratic turnout, the fact that there are twice as many Indies (30% of voters) vs. Dems (14%) means that even a small 5-point increase translates into notable increased support for McMullin. Caveated by a lot of uncertainty, this is the scenario we view as the most likely for November.
Finally, as a hypothetical, let’s consider the Purple Wave scenario, in which disaffected moderates turn out at extremely high rates. Split Ticket rates the race as Likely R and the prospect of an actual McMullin victory is not the likeliest possibility. This scenario is included for speculating what an actual path for a non-Republican to win Utah is in the current Trump GOP era.
In the Purple Wave scenario, the most hypothetical outcome occurs whereby Lee and McMullin exactly tie at 652,358 votes apiece. Republican voter turnout is held constant at the Red Ripple scenario level of 77%; what changes is that Unaffiliated (70%) and Democratic (70%) turnout rise to nearly match Republican turnout. The surge in Independent and Democratic turnout means overall turnout rises from 66% to 73%.
Republican support crumbles a bit, by 2 points, as Lee carries 69% instead of 71% of his partisan base, more consistent with his reduced margin in the summer primary. Unaffiliated support for McMullin rises just barely, from 65% to 66%, while Lee still gets 30% with this group. Meanwhile, Democratic support for McMullin over Lee goes from 83%-5% (I +78) to 85%-3% (I +82).
What really sets the Purple Wave scenario apart is that Dem/Indie turnout rises to 70%, coming much closer to the 77% GOP turnout (similar to the Red Ripple). Again, a lot of this just comes down to turnout.
All the major municipalities in Salt Lake County are purple here, as well as Provo and Bountiful. Other municipalities such as Clearfield, Clinton, and Woods Cross in Davis County, and Vineyard in Utah County flip to McMullin here. In short – a McMullin victory is made possible by triggering an open revolt among traditionally GOP-leaning and college-educated Mormon voters in the Wasatch Front.
The table above details the expected coalition breakdowns that go into each scenario. Is the Purple Wave possible? Absolutely. But we would not bet on it.
One reason is the rural portion of Utah, which this article has not mentioned yet. The Utah GOP has been trading Provo for Price, and while rural Utah has more hoodoos than people, the sheer margins eventually add up. Moreover, the most notable metropolitan area outside of the Wasatch Front in the state is St. George in Washington County, which has not budged leftward. Part of this is attributable to the lower education rate in Washington County (29% versus 41% in Utah County). But among Utahns, rural voters are more Mormon than urban ones – and are thus more conservative all else being equal. This is reflected in the 2022 primary map by county. Whereas Lee only earned 62% of primary votes in Utah County, an archetypal “mid-high density” GOP county, Washington County backed Lee with 78% of the vote. Rural Piute County gave Lee 87% of the vote as another example. Lee will depend on rural Utah as a redoubt – and anti-Trump Republicans far scarcer as a percentage of the party there than in the Wasatch Front counties.
If you asked us whether Evan McMullin had a clear lane to victory, we would say yes — there is a reason we have the race at Likely Republican instead of Safe, and this race is almost certain to be the closest Utah Senate election in years. But if you asked us about the actual odds he had, we would place Mike Lee as the clear and overwhelming favorite; even if McMullin had everything break his way, our methodology above shows that it is still an extreme lift for him. There are two main questions going into Election Day that will determine how close McMullin gets to unseating Lee.
Firstly, McMullin saw about half his presidential coalition go to Trump and half to Biden. Now that he, himself, is back on the ballot, can he put together that coalition again given that Lee is tied to Trump? If McMullin can combine his anti-Trump Republican support, then he could win this November. Many Republicans, however, have embraced Trumpism and Lee, and will not come back to McMullin. In other words, there will be many McMullin 2016-Lee 2022 voters, likely more than Lee 2016-McMullin 2022 voters (the principled anti-Trump/anti-Lee vote).
Secondly, what does turnout look like? If Democrats do come out to vote, that will help McMullin, and be an essential ingredient. However, Democrats are still only 14% of the state’s registered voters. Abortion is not on the ballot like in Kansas, and Utah’s high proportion of Mormons amenable to social conservatism complicates abortion politics in the state – the only two Democrats elected to federal office in Utah this century were avowed anti-abortion candidates. That being said, Utah does have a segment of college-educated voters that has not warmed up to Trump or Trumpism. These voters could break towards an independent without having to vote for a Democrat, a definite possibility given what we have seen in highly educated places like Johnson County, Kansas, outside Kansas City.
At the end of the day, McMullin would need at least two-thirds of Independents and very likely 3 in 10 Republicans while at the same time getting immense turnout from moderate and independent voters in a midterm election, a type of contest that usually engages partisans more than unaffiliated voters. This is an incredibly difficult lift. But given that Becky Edwards earned roughly 30% of support in a closed GOP primary, there hypothetically exists the viable support necessary to tank Lee’s candidacy in a general election.
Split Ticket projects that the likeliest outcome of the race is a Lee victory by single digits, closer to the red ripple scenario outlined previously. This would not be a political earthquake, but would still be an unexpected blow to Trump-aligned Republicans like Lee. More tellingly, however, it could provide a roadmap for a future realignment in Utah, if one were to come about.
Jacob S. Rugh
I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.