Bob Bernick’s notebook: Changing affiliations

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A lot of independent voters in Utah are wondering if they should formally register as belonging to the Republican Party so they can get a GOP ballot in the June 30 primary election.

No one really knows how many would-be GOP voters are out there.

But we have a bit of an idea from information culled from a recent 2News poll conducted by Y2 Analytics.

According to the Utah Elections Office, there are 592,857 independent voters, those who don’t belong to any political party. That number varies, of course, every day, as more folks register to vote, and don’t pick a political party when they do so.

Under Utah law, every political party can decide for itself whom they allow to vote in their primaries — and the Utah Republican Party has decided to allow only those who register as a Republican with their local county clerk to participate in the GOP primary.

The state GOP can do this even though Utah taxpayers pay for the primary election, which will cost around $3 million this year.

Democrats allow independents to vote in their primary.

So, there are around 924,000 voters in Utah who CANNOT vote in the GOP primary — because they are not registered Republicans — even though they are paying for the closed GOP primary through their tax dollars.

Ok, so why does any of this matter this year?

Because one (maybe more) of the four GOP candidates for governor is welcoming independent voters to register as Republicans so they can vote for him for governor.

Former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman is clearly that guy.

Just after the Republican State Convention in late April, where Huntsman finished a poor sixth and would have been eliminated if not for the fact that he got 28,000 signatures of registered GOP voters and via SB54 advanced to the June 30 primary, a Huntsman supporter, millionaire/philanthropist Kem Gardner, wrote an op-ed piece in The Salt Lake Tribune (owned by Huntsman’s younger brother, Paul).

Gardner said that the real race for governor will take place in the GOP primary, and so anyone (i.e., independents) who want to have their voice heard needs to vote in the primary, even if they are an independent or Democrat and must register as a Republican to do so.

You have until 5 p.m. June 19 to do so with your county clerk.

Now, history tells us that not that many folks switch their registration from independent to Republican just before a GOP primary in order to get a Republican ballot. Even fewer Democrats do so.

But history may be a bit off this year.

I say this for several reasons.

First, because of the coronavirus, in a special session in April the Utah Legislature made the June primary essentially ALL mail-on ballots. This will get people’s attention because they will be getting a lot of stuff in the mail.

Second, like other states, Utah has become more partisan, more divided, through the presidency of Donald Trump.

Y2 polling shows a lot of Democrats and independents in Utah don’t like Trump. And they may be more politically engaged this election year because of it.

They may be so engaged they could be thinking about registering as Republicans so they can get involved in the majority party’s gubernatorial race.

Huntsman, while he does support Trump, is still the most moderate in the four-person gubernatorial primary — even though Huntsman is moving to the right in his campaigning. The other three are just more to the right.

Now, Y2, in a published poll, shows that among all Republicans, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox leads Huntsman, 40-33 percent. That survey was taken at the end of March. We’ll have a new head-to-head GOP governor’s race survey coming soon.

In order to get some idea how many independent Utahns might consider registering as Republicans to vote in the governor’s race, Y2 asked just that question.

We asked those who had said they are independents “leaning” Republican in their voting and philosophies if they might register GOP.

Now, it’s not a big number, 135 of the 1,331 in the poll are in that group, and 69 percent said they were “very” or “somewhat” likely to do so.

Here’s an interesting number, of those independents who may vote in the governor’s race, Huntsman and Cox are basically tied, Y2 finds.

It doesn’t appear that Huntsman would have an edge among these voters — and so it wouldn’t help his campaign much to try to get these independents to change their registration to Republican so they can vote for him.

Of course, Huntsman’s campaign wouldn’t be trying to sign up just any old independent. They would seek out those who already support him — they just happen to be independents and won’t be able to vote for him unless they change their “unaffiliated” voter status.

How can Huntsman, or any campaign, I.D. independent voters who may support their candidate?

Well, they can do some polling themselves. They can cull donation lists and check the public record to see if those folks are independents or registered GOP.

In a broader sense, Huntsman can run campaign ads aimed at appealing to Utahns in general, hoping some independents will see the need to register GOP in order to vote for him.

If you take the percentages of voters who are telling Y2 they “lean” Republican and then break out those numbers across all independent voters, there could be around 40,000 voters that could consider reregistering to become Republicans this spring.

Those are a lot of voters that may likely be inclined to vote, either for Huntsman or Cox.

That’s certainly enough to swing the GOP gubernatorial primary one way or the other between the top two candidates, Huntsman and Cox.

But it’s a sensitive sell — appeal too much to independent voters, actually run a TV ad asking them to register as Republicans, and you likely turn current GOP voters, who certainly may cast a primary ballot, away from you.

So maybe you have a friend run an op-ed in your brother’s newspaper.

Or you try to I.D. GOP-leaning independents who could support you, and give them a call or mailer.

In my own case, for the first time ever I’m seeing some personal friends who are independents signing up to be Republicans — just to vote in the June GOP primary for governor.

If you are Huntsman, you may like this trend.

For the other GOP candidates, maybe not so much.