We may not know who wins the hotly contested GOP race for governor until mid-July. But, there are some key indicators from the results over the first few days that will give us some hints about who is doing well, and who may be in trouble.
After several conversations with campaign officials, people close to the campaigns and informed observers, here are some of the key metrics and developments that the four Republicans, Spencer Cox, Jon Huntsman, Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright, will be looking for as the returns begin to roll in beginning Tuesday evening.
The race to 35
With four candidates in the race, it’s entirely possible, nay probable, that the GOP nominee will win with 35 percent of the vote. Reaching 40 percent seems like a pipe dream.
Conventional wisdom says if we see a big voter turnout on Tuesday, this could easily become a two-man race between Cox and Huntsman. That’s not necessarily true, as it depends on WHERE that big turnout happens, which we’ll detail below.
However, a lower than expected turnout on Tuesday will likely keep Wright in the race. His campaign admits Wright’s name-ID is not as high as the other three candidates, which will hurt him if we see a surge of voters who are less engaged in politics.
Utah County is crucial
Nearly 1/5th of the GOP primary electorate is in Utah County. There’s a reason that both Spencer Cox and Jon Huntsman picked running mates from here. If any of the four candidates racks up a big margin in Utah County, that will go a long way toward winning.
Salt Lake County
Greg Hughes’ campaign cannot get blown out in Utah’s most populous county. He may finish behind Cox and Huntsman, but if it’s close, he's in good shape. If Hughes is in the top-two, then his path to victory gets a lot easier.
Huntsman’s campaign has made a concerted effort to get independent voters who normally vote Republican in November to register with the GOP to cast a ballot in the GOP primary. Since June 10, approximately 35,000 independents have become Republicans. Huntsman campaign sources tell me that 22,000 of those brand new Republicans voted in 2016.
Our polling shows independent voters could break for Huntsman over Cox by a 2-1 margin. If these voters cast ballots in significant numbers, perhaps 70 percent or higher, then Huntsman could see a huge advantage.
Conversely, a high turnout among these voters could spell trouble for Hughes. Independents tend to be more moderate, and it’s unlikely he’ll see much of a benefit from that.
Turning out the base
Here is where Hughes makes his bread and butter. Sources within his campaign tell me that a turnout among conservative voters near 60 percent will be very good news for him, indeed. Our polling shows Hughes and Cox split “strong” Republican voters, but among self-described “strong” conservatives, Hughes wipes the floor with the other candidates, racking up nary 50 percent support in that group.
Cox and Hughes are banking on big turnout among rural voters. Cox branded himself from the start as the “rural” candidate, while Hughes’ campaign also focused on rural voters. The rural areas of the state could make up a quarter of the primary electorate on Tuesday. A big margin there could mean the ballgame.
This could be the Hughes campaign secret weapon. His running mate, Victor Iverson, is from Washington County and could push up his numbers in Iron and Washington Counties. If turnout there spikes, that’s a good sign for them.
The running mate factor
Wright’s campaign floated a unique scenario that I admittedly hadn’t given much thought to, Rob Bishop’s presence on the ballot could give him a boost on the ballot, especially in Northern Utah. The thinking is, Bishop is well known to Republican voters in CD1, who are going to turn out to vote in the hotly contested GOP primary to replace him in Congress, may vote for Wright/Bishop.
The success of that scenario will depend on increased turnout in Morgan, Weber and other counties.
The Dabakis (non) factor
If either Spencer Cox or Jon Huntsman emerges victorious, expect Democrat/carnival barker Jim Dabakis to try and take credit. He claims that he’s behind the surge in independent voters registering as Republicans to vote in the primary (spoiler alert: he’s not).
As we first reported, the Huntsman campaign launched a concerted effort to recruit independent voters who usually vote Republican to register with the GOP so they can vote in the primary election. Those voters certainly aren’t listening to Dabakis.
By some estimates, approximately 10,000 Democrats decided to cross over and become Republicans for the primary election, which is about 10 percent of the total. By contrast, Weber County has already seen a turnout of more than 15,000.
A kingmaker, Dabakis is not.