The improbable saga of Utah’s most popular politician

Back in 2004, Gary Herbert was a Utah County commissioner with a lot of ambition – but not much else. No name ID, not much statewide support. He wasn’t wealthy or famous. Still, against all odds, he decided — “What the heck, I’m going to run for governor.”

The competition was more than formidable. He went up against incumbent Gov. Olene Walker, former Congressman Jim Hansen, former House Speakers Nolan Karras and Marty Stephens, wealthy businessman Fred Lampropoulos and, of course, Jon Huntsman, Jr., Utah’s own version of political royalty.

Herbert didn’t become governor that year, but he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and probably avoided a little embarrassment, by accepting an invitation from Huntsman to become his lieutenant governor running mate. 

And the rest is history. That long-shot gubernatorial bid became a gigantic win just five years later when Huntsman resigned to become ambassador to China. Herbert inherited the governorship in August, 2009, and has been going strong ever since.

He’s won three elections since (the first in 2010 to finish out Huntsman’s term) by healthy margins (64 percent in 2010, 69 percent in 2012, and 67 percent in 2016).

With two more years left in his current term, he has become Utah’s most popular politician, with an upper-stratosphere 76 percent favorable rating in a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll. Only 23 percent of voters have an unfavorable impression of him, with only 7 percent saying their impression is “not at all favorable”. 

Herbert will also end up being Utah’s second-longest serving governor. Gov. Calvin Rampton served 12 years, three full terms, while Herbert will have served nearly 11 and a half years when he leaves office at the end of 2020. Gov. Mike Leavitt won three terms, but left for a federal appointment in his last term, serving as governor for nearly 11 years. 

Herbert is one of Utah’s most conservative governors, but his brand of conservatism has been practical, forward-looking and growth-oriented. He has chaired the National Governors Association and most other governor’s organizations.

He started at a difficult time, as the economy nosedived in the Great Recession. He dealt with difficult budgets and hard choices. He doesn’t deliver stemwinder speeches, or even very inspirational speeches. But he connects on a human level. Utahns see themselves reflected in him. He has been a busy, hardworking, active governor.

Some challengers have criticized Herbert for being a “caretaker” governor who has not used his political capital to do tough things. While Herbert, like most politicians, can be a bit risk-averse, he has taken on numerous difficult fights. This year he’s even using his political capital to stump for a fuel tax increase that would provide significant funding for public education. He has also come out against the popular medical marijuana initiative.

Despite those positions, his support among the public has held up very well. Politicians who serve for a decade or more often wear out their welcome and their approval numbers drop. That hasn’t happened with Herbert. His favorability rating is more than 20 points ahead of any other top Utah politician.

Well, except one – his own lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox. 

Perhaps we could place an asterisk beside Herbert’s top favorability rating because if the poll numbers are carefully analyzed it could be argued that Cox actually beats him.

Cox enjoys a 73 percent favorability rating — three points behind Herbert. However, Cox has only an 11 percent unfavorable rating, which is better than Herbert’s 23 percent. And a full 17 percent don’t know Cox or have never heard of him, while only 8 percent don’t know Herbert. Thus, if Cox gets just a small percentage of the “don’t knows,” he beats Herbert.

In fact, Cox has a 1.72 mean score, which is better than Herbert’s 1.95. 

So everyone loves the very lovable Spencer Cox, who gets to do cute TV commercials encouraging people to vote. Whether voters feel he has the substance to be governor may be tested in 2020. But that’s a story for another day.

Meanwhile, Herbert can enjoy his status as Utah’s most popular politician, and one of the nation’s longest-serving and most popular governors.

The Dan Jones tracking survey was conducted through Oct. 10, with a sample of 622 voters. It has a possible margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percent.