One of the most surprising results of the 2022 midterms was the relatively close Utah Senate race. The ruby-red state posted a 10.4-point win for incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Lee over conservative independent Evan McMullin — a remarkable underperformance by Lee. By comparison, the comparatively more competitive state of Florida voted for Sen. Marco Rubio, one of Sen. Lee’s Republican peers, by 17 points.
At the beginning of the cycle, Utah being closer than Florida was not a possibility most analysts would have deemed serious. But after conducting our own analysis in collaboration with Professor Jacob Rugh of Brigham Young University, Split Ticket predicted that a “red ripple” scenario where McMullin achieved c. 43% of the statewide vote was the likeliest outcome. The actual result was remarkably similar, with McMullin earning 42.8%. Split Ticket will go into a few of the factors that produced the actual outcome of the race, and analyze how applicable these results are to future elections.
First, and the biggest factor in Evan McMullin’s closer-than-expected loss is the continued realignment of college-educated voters from the Republican to Democratic parties. Senator Lee’s 10-point win continues to confirm that the typical 40-point Republican wins in Utah are increasingly consigned to the past. The Wasatch Front, stretching across Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah counties, has many voters who were once strong Republicans but whose loyalties have frayed some.
Looking at where a 20-point Trump win was converted into a 10-point Lee win in the Wasatch Front, one can see that higher college education was strongly correlated with harder swings from Biden to McMullin.
This graph shows that higher-educated municipalities swung away from Republicans between 2020 and 2022. Within the total set of 51 localities, the swing is more pronounced among the red-colored Lee-won areas. Logically, this is because the McMullin-won areas in the Wasatch Front are already, for the most part, solidly blue. These areas, like Millcreek, South Salt Lake, and West Valley City, have fewer disaffected conservatives that would be open to voting for McMullin than do municipalities that voted for Lee.
Three cities on the above map are highlighted as examples of the described trends. The first is Bountiful, which narrowly voted for McMullin, the second is Salt Lake City, which continues to get ever bluer, and the third is Provo, the cultural heart of college-educated Mormonism.
Looking at Bountiful, Biden narrowly won a few precincts in the western portions of the city, losing overall by 16. McMullin had a massive shift in his favor, winning the city by 1 and dominating the western precincts. This is likely the first time a non-Republican has won the city of Bountiful in a statewide race in decades.
Salt Lake City’s liberal hue predates the McMullin campaign, as Republicans have generally lost convincingly here since the mid-2000s. Mitt Romney won some precincts in the more college-educated east side of the city, but since then, Joe Biden produced a shutout. The story of Salt Lake City is much more explainable as a product of ongoing educational polarization and in-migration from liberal non-Mormon voters, rather than a recent particular disgust at MAGA Republicans, i.e. more vocally hard-right culture-war and Trump-aligned conservatives. A neat heuristic for determining one’s MAGA or non-MAGA affinity is their vote on certifying the 2020 election. This is the case with more traditionally conservative areas like Bountiful.
Provo is the most interesting. Split Ticket’s pre-election preview of the Utah Senate race discussed in detail the historical political geography of Provo and how it might vote in 2022, and overall, the results matched expectations. Seeing as the city now serves as a bellwether in the post-Trump era for the state, a narrow loss for McMullin is right where Split Ticket predicted. McMullin’s strongest Provo areas were the precincts near the BYU campus, which perfectly lines up with the theory of college-educated Republican revolt.
Having looked at the demographics-based factors, the second important factor in explaining McMullin’s relatively close shave is the toxic brand of MAGA Republicanism practiced by Mike Lee. Senator Lee has been associated with organizers of the January 6th insurrection, and has equated the 45th President with Captain Moroni, a Mormon legendary Mormon leader. Educational polarization is a long-standing trend, but this process is aided by candidates who alienate pre-existing coalitions. The only logical reason that cities like Bountiful and Provo are remotely close is because the many traditionally-Republican voters specifically dislike Lee and his brand of Republicanism.
The best way to quantify this “MAGA penalty” is to look at the “anti-Lee vote”, or, the difference between the Senate and the Congressional House results. In 2020, the Governor’s results served as a good heuristic for a generic Republican performance due to Spencer Cox’s moderate nature, but in 2022, the House results can serve as a good approximation. Of Utah’s 4 congressional districts, all are represented by the GOP, but 2, are represented by more mainstream conservatives who voted to certify all the election results, (UT-01’s Blake Moore and UT-03’s John Curtis), and 2 are represented by MAGA Republicans (UT-02’s Chris Stewart and UT-04’s Burgess Owens). Curtis and Moore voted for certification, with the other two against. But even though Stewart and Owens are both MAGA Republicans, Senator Lee is still seen as a more pro-Trump politician than both of them (Trump endorsed Rep. Owens and Stewart and Sen. Lee, but not Rep. Curtis or Moore). And looking at the anti-Lee vote in the Wasatch Front, it is what one expects.
Cities such as Provo, Bountiful, Ogden, and those in southern Salt Lake County had gigantic splits between Senate and House. Several Provo precincts, again concentrated near BYU, had gaps of over 40 points — part of which is due to Rep. John Curtis’s connections to the city, but still represents the two competing strains of Republicanism.
At a congressional district level, non-MAGA Republicans outperformed Mike Lee by 26 points in their seats, while the MAGA Republicans outperformed Lee by only 13 points. Even accounting for the fact that districts 2 and 4 have some less elastic areas of Utah (Salt Lake City proper is inflexibly Democratic), that is a dramatic difference. For voters who are conservative but anti-MAGA, McMullin was a very compelling choice — a solidly principled conservative voice, but also one who is avowedly not a Democrat. Were McMullin a Democrat, there is little chance he would have achieved these splits.
Putting these two together, one can see the combination of liberal non-Mormon Utahns with converting college-educated Mormon Utahns to produce the McMullin coalition. Comparing the 2020 and 2022 vote shares with the percent LDS in each county shows this:
The chart above shows broadly speaking, affiliation with Mormonism is correlated with increased GOP vote share. The three Democratic counties in the state are Salt Lake (home to lots of transplants), Grand (home to the tourist town of Moab), and Summit (home to the tourist town of Park City). Those three make up the bulk of the non-Mormon areas in the state, or at least where non-Mormons pack the biggest political punch. But look at the areas with the largest 2020-2022 swing, and a familiar pattern is observable: the large Mormon-heavy counties like Utah, Davis, and Cache all swung the strongest. Even ancestrally Democratic Carbon County swung 14 points away from the GOP. It is in combining these groups that a future “Blue Utah” coalition can be theorized.
The only notable geographic locality where McMullin dropped off was in majority-Navajo San Juan County. Very likely because the county is small and isolated, it’s probable that the McMullin campaign did not spend serious time conducting voter outreach — which is critical for reaching Navajo voters. With no Democrat on the ballot, hundreds of Navajo voters left the Senate race blank, leading Lee to win the county by 23 points overall. For comparison, Trump won this county by only 6 points in 2020.
On the topic of weaknesses, the biggest problem for McMullin’s campaign was the relative lack of unaffiliated voter turnout.
The red ripple scenario discussed in a previous Split Ticket article envisioned required parameters that McMullin fell just short of. The biggest factor in failing to generate this outcome was the observed 44% turnout rate among unaffiliated voters, while the red ripple scenario required 50%. Although, given that the red ripple scenario was based on an assumption that unaffiliated would favor McMullin by 35 points, his 23-point win among them, as estimated by Split Ticket, would require the turnout to be closer to 75% to achieve an equivalent result — which would be a herculean undertaking.
Still, though, McMullin likely did the best that he could, given Utah’s current demographic and partisan position in time. Due to McMullin’s persuasion of some conservative Republicans and consolidation of the Democratic vote, Lee managed to eke out the weakest victory for a federal Utah Republican since the 1970s, when Republican Orrin Hatch unseated Democratic Senator Ted Moss. An actual Lee loss would have been the upset of the century. But there are indeed lessons to be learned from this race, which will conclude this article.
Looking to 2024, it is perhaps tempting to use the 2022 Senate race as a benchmark for all future Beehive State elections, but below are some contrary factors that will influence Split Ticket’s coverage of Utah in 2024 and beyond:
- McMullin’s lack of partisan identification, and further, open disavowal of Democratic priorities went a long way in assuring anti-MAGA but otherwise hardline conservative Republicans that he could be trusted. It’s unlikely a more mainstream Democratic candidate can replicate this.
- Utah Democrats, as a partisan organization, are now based predominantly in Salt Lake County and have a liberal base that is increasingly energetic and eager to play for power. It is unclear how much longer Utah Democrats will tolerate self-elimination for the sake of electing the least objectionable conservative.
- Relative to point number 2, every single serious Democratic candidate who has run for federal office in Utah this century has been either a moderate or conservative. This includes Scott Matheson and Reps. Bill Orton, Jim Matheson, and Ben McAdams. Democratic Party activists have already expressed opposition to these relatively conservative candidates in the past, such as when Rep. Jim Matheson nearly lost his renomination in 2010 to a liberal activist for being insufficiently liberal. With the hollowing out of rural Democratic voices in Utah and elsewhere, an increasingly urbanized Utah Democratic Party is more likely to be hostile to homegrown internal conservatism.
- Even as Trump and Lee had relatively weak performances in 2020 and 2022, the congressional vote is still very red. Republicans won the generic congressional ballot by 25 points in 2020 and 31 points in 2022 (though MAGA Republicans suffered a 10-point penalty in the House races). As realignments tend to proceed in a top-down manner, this indicates that the leading edge of the political shifts very much remains at the presidential and senatorial level, driven by individual candidate quality decisions and less so by raw party ID that takes longer to change.
With these factors in mind, the 2024 presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial results are set to be exciting displays of where Utah’s politics are headed. Whether the GOP nominee is Trump, Ron DeSantis, or some other candidate, they will likely provide an interesting foil to incumbent Senator Mitt Romney and Gov. Spencer Cox, who have both staked out positions on the non-MAGA side of the Republican conflict. Split Ticket will be eagerly watching to see whether the competitive Utah coalition theorized in the 2022 Senate race becomes a reality.