Utahns aren’t yet sold on whether Jon Huntsman should return to Utah to run for governor again

Jon Huntsman, Jr.

A plurality of Utahns says they would like to see former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman return to the Beehive State and run for governor once again according to a new Utah Political Trends survey.

The poll from UtahPolicy.com and Y2 Analytics finds 47% of respondents want Huntsman to run for governor again in the state. Just over a third (37%) say they do not want Huntsman to vie for the governor’s mansion again, while 17% said they did not know or were not sure.

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Huntsman announced his resignation as the Trump administration’s ambassador to Russia last week. There has been much speculation that Huntsman is preparing to return to Utah to run for governor, a post he held from 2005 until he resigned to become the Obama administration’s ambassador to China in 2009. Our survey was conducted from July 31 to August 6, which is why the question was worded “Former Republican Governor Jon Huntsman is reportedly considering resigning as ambassador to Russia so he can return to Utah and run for governor in 2020. Would you like to see Jon Huntsman return to Utah to run for governor?” Our poll and news of Huntsman’s resignation overlapped by a few days.

Curiously, Democrats and independent voters are much more open to Huntsman returning to the state to run for governor than are his fellow Republicans.

  • 38% of “strong” Republicans would like to see Huntsman run again in Utah, while 48% would not.
  • 47% of moderate Republicans are open to another Huntsman candidacy, while 26% are not.
  • Independents who lean Republican are evenly divided on the question, with 42% saying they would like to see Huntsman return to run for governor while 44% would not.
  • Half of independent voters said they would like Huntsman to run for governor again, while a third (34%) would not.
  • 57% of “strong” Democrats, and 63% of moderate Democrats would favor a return run by Huntsman, but only 44% of Democratic-leaning independents would.

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UtahPolicy.com pollster Kelly Patterson of Y2 Analytics says there’s a easy explanation as to why Utah Democrats feel more favorably toward Huntsman than Republicans.

“Democrats have always been fairly enthusiastic backers of Governor Huntsman,” said Paterson. “In a state where the Democratic party, over the last three decades, has had only a small chance of ever winning a statewide race, Governor Huntsman was one nominee from the Republican Party that Democrats could actually support.”

It’s a virtual lock that a Republican will win the 2020 gubernatorial contest. The last time a Democrat won a statewide election was 1992, with the last Democratic governor being Scott Matheson who left office in 1985.

Given that record of electoral futility, Patterson says Utah Democrats are likely making a practical compromise.

“Huntsman was not overtly ideological, and he pursued policies that Democrats found palatable. So, if you think your candidate has a minimal chance of winning in the general election, you would hope that the Republican Party would nominate a candidate closer to you on the ideological spectrum,” explained Patterson.

We see the same dynamic at play when our respondents are broken out by ideology. The

  • Strong conservatives oppose Huntsman running again by a 56-31% margin.
  • Moderately conservative Utahns are nearly evenly split, with 41% favoring another run by Huntsman and 36% opposed.
  • Moderates favor another Huntsman candidacy 54-32.
  • 58% of moderately liberal voters favor Huntsman returning to Utah for another run at the governor’s mansion, while 23% are opposed. 
  • Strongly liberal Utahns are evenly divided, with 45% in favor and 43% opposed.

So far, currently Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is the only declared candidate in the race to replace Gary Herbert who will not run next year. Along with Huntsman, others rumored to be considering a run in 2020 include Rep. Rob Bishop, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and businessmen Jeff Burningham and Greg Miller.

The Utah Political Trends survey was conducted by Y2 Analytics from July 31-August 6, 2019 among 1,017 registered Utah voters with a margin of error +/- 3.1%.