Analysis: Unaffiliated voters registering as Republicans could give Jon Huntsman a big advantage in the GOP primary for governor

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While former Gov. Jon Huntsman falls behind Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox among Republican Party voters likely to cast a ballot in the June 30 closed party primary, Huntsman leads Cox among political independents who might jump into the party so they can vote for their favorite gubernatorial candidate.

It’s a lead that is important to Huntsman.

And it’s not gone unnoticed among a few of his political-savvy supporters — some who have openly called for independents, even Democrats, to register as Republicans with their county clerks so they can get a GOP ballot in the mail.

A new 2News poll finds that among independents who “lean” Republican, Huntsman gets 48 percent support, Cox gets 31 percent of that demographic, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes gets 9 percent, and former state GOP chairman Thomas Wright gets 12 percent.

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Now, the margin of error is fairly large here — 8.7 percent, plus or minus — because the sample is just 127 voters, but the trend is still illustrative of how Huntsman could pick up some votes if he or his supporters make a real effort to recruit Huntsman voters who are not now registered Republicans, but usually vote Republican in a general election, and might be persuaded to join the GOP just to cast a ballot for him in the primary.

And the numbers can be fairly high.

For example, using the polling numbers in the new Y2 Analytics survey, across the state there are around 67,000 voters who are political independents who “lean” Republican and tell Y2 they would be “likely” to join the party and thus get a GOP ballot for the June 30 primary.

Huntsman gets 48 percent support among that group, so around 32,000 votes.

Cox gets 31 percent or around 21,000 votes.

The difference is around 12,000 votes that Huntsman could gain on Cox in the primary.

Not a lot, you may say.

True. But, of course, if the Huntsman campaign made a concerted effort to I.D. his supporters among those 67,000 “lean” GOP independent voters, he wouldn’t be looking to turn out all 67,000 voters — he just wants HIS OWN independent “lean” Republicans to sign up to get a GOP ballot.

And that number is around 32,000 voters — enough to easily help swing the four-person election in Huntsman’s favor.

Remember, U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams in 2018 unseated GOP Rep. Mia Love by around 700 votes in the 4th District, or just 2,800 votes if you extended the victory statewide.

Let’s do some numbers in this year’s GOP governor’s race, remembering that there is a relatively large margin of error when we get down in these demographic weeds of the poll:

There are about 800,000 registered GOP voters in Utah (not all will vote in the primary, of course).

Cox has 39 percent support among them, or about 312,000 votes. Huntsman has 32 percent support, or about 256,000 votes.

Subtract the two, and Cox has around 56,000 more votes than Huntsman among registered GOP voters, as the polling stands today.

And, as we’ve seen, Huntsman could get around 32,000 votes from “lean” Republican independents, who could be persuaded to register as Republicans and get a GOP ballot for the June 30 primary and vote for Huntsman.

So, if Huntsman can I.D. his supporters among “lean” Republican independents, and get them to register as a Republican and vote in the primary, he could really cut into Cox’s overall lead, all other things being equal — which of course they likely wouldn’t be.

Still, shouldn’t Huntsman at least try?

The obvious answer is yes — go for all the votes you can.

But there is danger here.

If Huntsman makes a direct appeal himself, he could turn off some possible registered GOP voters — who may not like a Republican candidate asking non-registered Republicans to come into the party and vote for him.

He could lose some of the 32 percent support among GOP registered voters he already has, according to the poll.

However, surrogates for Huntsman could make this appeal, and a few have already. (See this op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune, which is owned by Huntsman’s younger brother, Paul.)

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is an archconservative who has already endorsed Huntsman. So Lee could make a plea — although that would look a bit odd, since archconservative party-loyalists are not supposed to be asking “lean” independent Republicans into their party.

Huntsman would more likely get some other “mainstream” Republicans to ask on his behalf, like Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz and car dealerships, or former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt — assuming they even back Huntsman in the intra-Republican race.

A number of “mainstream” Republicans in Utah have actually left the Republican Party — a mixture of folks disillusioned over the archconservative’s fight against SB54, the candidate dual pathway law that allows signatures to get on a party primary ballot, and dislike among many of President Donald Trump’s divisive politics.

(A forthcoming UtahPolicy/KUTV 2News poll will show just how disliked Trump is here — a surprise by Utahns’ previous feelings.)

So even though Huntsman and Cox now both support Trump — it would be political suicide to run a GOP gubernatorial campaign in Utah trying to distance oneself from Trump — there is clearly an opportunity to get some votes from dissatisfied “mainstream” GOP voters and independents who “lean” toward the Utah Republican Party.

We’ll see if Huntsman makes a serious play for this politically demographic group.

There’s only six weeks until primary election day, and mail-in ballots start going out to voters in just three weeks.