Analysis: Just how liberal is Salt Lake County?


Everyone knows that Salt Lake County – which contains Democratic Salt Lake City and 40 percent of the state’s population – is more liberal than Utah as a whole.

But how much more liberal?

Well, the 13 state House Democrats and five state senators are all from the county, most around Salt Lake City.

That’s one measurement.

But we also have demographics as provided by years of polling by UPD’s expert, Dan Jones of Dan Jones & Associates.

Let’s take a look at some of those numbers for the county, and compare them to the state as a whole.

First off, Utah is a very Republican state. It hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

It hasn’t elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1970. And it hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1980.

Yes, we’ve had some Democratic U.S. House members – usually winning because they carried their section of Salt Lake County by large margins, evening winning a number of traditionally Republican voters.

The last was former Rep. Jim Matheson, who retired from the House in 2015. He had to jump from his 2nd District into the new 4th District after the GOP-controlled Legislature redrew the U.S. House districts in 2011, making it even tougher for a Democrat to win a congressional seat.

Let’s look at some of Jones’ demographic numbers:

— Across the state, 52 percent say they are Republicans.

— Only 17 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

— 28 percent say they are political independents; they don’t belong to any party.

— And 7 percent say they belong to some other party, like the Green Party or the Constitution Party. (The so-called Tea Party is not a real political party in Utah, but an anti-establishment, anti-government political movement.)

Now, look at the makeup of Salt Lake County (according to Jones’ latest UPD poll.):

— Only 30 percent of county voters say they are Republicans.

— Democrats jump up to 27 percent of county voters.

— Independents are 35 percent.

— And members of other parties come in at 7 percent, just like statewide. (Although there would be more Greens in this group, fewer Constitution Party members.)

So you see that Democrats pick up ten percentage points more in the county compared to statewide, and independents pick up seven percentage points more.

How about political philosophy?

Jones finds statewide:

— 25 percent self-identify as “very conservative.”

— 33 percent, a third, say they are “somewhat conservative.”

— 17 percent say they are “moderate,” or in the middle.

— Only 15 percent of Utahns say they are “somewhat liberal.”

— And 9 percent say they are “very liberal.”

In Salt Lake County:

— Only 18 percent say they are “very conservative.”

— 24 percent (or a fifth) say they are “somewhat conservative.”

— 16 percent say they are “moderates.”

— While 24 percent say they are “somewhat liberal.”

— And 16 percent say they are “very liberal.”

Big differences here, don’t you think?

Put the two conservative groups together statewide, and Utah is 58 percent “very” or “somewhat” conservative – or right of the middle.

But look at Salt Lake County, and only 42 percent say they are on the conservative side.

Statewide, only 24 percent, or one-fourth, of Utahns say they are liberals, either “somewhat” or “very.”

In Salt Lake County, 40 percent give themselves the liberal title.

Considering that “liberal” is sometimes a nasty word in Utah these days, and has been for years, that is rather remarkable.

There’s little doubt that the unpopularity of GOP President Donald Trump, who calls himself a conservative – but really doesn’t hold the title very well – in Utah probably has something to do with more Salt Lake County folks being willing to accept the liberal title nowadays.

It is to be expected that the Salt Lake City mayor – while to job is officially nonpartisan – would be a Democrat. In fact, not since the mid-1970s has a Republican held that job.

But Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is also a Democrat, and was a moderate Democratic state senator before he won the county mayorship six years ago.

The county council is 5-4 Republican, with Democrats holding the district attorney, clerk and sheriff posts in county government.

There are 29 state House seats wholly or partly in Salt Lake County. Democrats hold 13 of those seats, with Republicans at 16.

There are 11 state Senate seats wholly or partly in the county; Democrats hold five, Republicans six.

It was clear during the 2011 legislative redistricting that the majority Republicans were going to protect their incumbent House and Senate members in Salt Lake County.

And they did, telling Democrats in the House and Senate they could determine their seat boundaries, as long as they clearly gave up at least one House and one Senate seat – their minority members being combined in some manner.

If you split up the political independent percentages evenly in the county – giving half to Republicans and half to Democrats – than Democrats in the House and Senate are batting below their percentage averages, but only slightly.

UPD calculations show 44.5 percent for Democrats, and 47.5 percent for Republicans – and the parties are about at that with 6 GOP Senate seats (5 for Democrats) and 16 GOP House seats (13 for Democrats) in the county.

Democrats won two additional House seats in the county last year – defeating Rep. Sophia DiCaro, R-West Valley, and getting the open seat left by retiring Rep. Johnny Anderson, also R-West Valley.

At various times during an extended count, Democrats also led in three other GOP House seats, losing them when the final canvas was counted.

No seats changed hands in the 2016 state Senate elections, and it looks like redistricting there shored up both Democrat and GOP seats in the county.

Finally, let’s look at religious preferences statewide and in Salt Lake County.

There have been some well-publicized combining of LDS wards and stakes in Salt Lake City and the northern part of the county in recent years.

Jones’ figures show:

— Statewide, 52 percent of Utahns say they are “very active” in the Mormon Church – meaning they are likely tithe-paying members who have “recommends” (passes) to do religious work in LDS temples.

— 7 percent say they are “somewhat” active in their LDS faith.

— 4 percent say they were once Mormons, but are no longer practicing that religion.

— 19 percent statewide say they have no religion.

In Salt Lake County:

— 38 percent say they are active Mormons.

— 4 percent say they “somewhat” are LDS.

— 4 percent say they are no longer Mormons.

— And 33 percent – a third – say they have no religion at all.

Thus, the county is much less Mormon than the rest of the state.

In fact, faithful Mormons are actually in the minority in the county, Jones’ latest demographics show.

In this analysis, Jones’ latest poll is of 607 adults statewide, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percent.

The Salt Lake County sample was of 216 adults, with a margin of error of about three times the statewide numbers.

Should a proposed non-partisan approach to redistricting in 2021 get on the 2018 ballot and pass, we could see more Democrats elected inside of Salt Lake County than in 30 or 40 years.

But Utah, as a whole, is safely in the Republican column for decades to come, it appears.