Romney, New Primary Date Put Utah on the Political Map
For Once There Are TV Ads, Even a Candidate’s Office
PROVO, Utah — The BYU College Democrats assembled Monday night in Diane Bailey’s apartment to watch the State of the Union address. Like so many college kids in America, they weren’t going to sit through a SOTU speech without turning it into a drinking game. So it was that every time the president said a certain word (“terror,” “enemy,” “evil”) or mangled the language (“nucular,” “Zimbawe”), they bolted down a beverage. Of course, as Mormons, they had to stick to soda. They ingested heroic, indeed sickening, quantities of root beer, ginger ale and 7-Up, even the rather edgy Mountain Dew.
They got louder as the speech grew longer.
“Terrorist!” (Gulp.) “Evil!!” (Glug.) “Nine-eleven!” (Burp.) When the president named America’s greatest enemy, the students roared — “Osama bin Laden!” — and, as stipulated in the rules, ran outside to roll in the snow.
Brigham Young University is run by the Mormon Church and may have the most conservative campus in the country. Provo has been called America’s most conservative city. You’d think a Democrat around here would be about as hard to find as Sasquatch. “It’s the same as being a conservative at Berkeley,” said Hyrum Salmond, a junior.
What’s amazing about Utah this year is not so much the presence of outspoken Democrats, but the fact that the state is on the national radar to begin with. As one of the Super Tuesday states that will hold primaries Feb. 5, Utah is finally in play.
This may be a geologically spectacular place, with the jagged white wall of the snow-laden Wasatch Mountains forming a backdrop to the gleaming temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but when it comes to political machinations it has been one of the dullest states in the country.
The Republican Party has dominated the state, and the church has dominated the party. In the general election, Utah has been slotted, like neighboring Wyoming, as a redderthan-red state. And in past primary seasons, it held neighborhood cau- cuses late in the cycle, after the nominations were wrapped up.
So behold now the flowering of politics in the desert. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are running multiple TV spots. It’s a bargain for the campaigns, what with just one media market in the entire state. It is also utterly novel: No one here can recall ever — ever — having seen a presidential TV ad in Utah.
Juicing interest all the more is the candidacy of Mitt Romney. Romney, the former governor (and current resident) of Massachusetts, is one of the nation’s most prominent Mormons, famously turned around the 2002 Winter Olympics here, and might as well be a native son. Political observers expect him to win here Tuesday by a wide margin. “If he gets under 80 percent, I’d be amazed,” said J. Quin Monson, a BYU professor of political science. Romney will be in Utah on Saturday, but not to campaign. He’ll join thousands of church members at the funeral of Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Mormon Church, who died Sunday night. “Our Prophet has passed,” said a text message that raced among BYU students soon after Hinckley’s death. Students wore their Sunday best to class the next day.
The funeral forced Obama to cancel a campaign stop scheduled for Saturday in Salt Lake City. His wife, Michelle, will make the pitch for him here Monday. The biggest campaign event in recent days has been the appearance of Chelsea Clinton, who stumped for her mother at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. About 200 people showed up, many of them Republicans just curious to see a young woman who spent her teenage years in the White House.
She showed herself an able surrogate, deftly handling questions from the audience, then shaking hands and posing for pictures with anyone and everyone. She let several young men take turns giving her a hug, and then said, “That sealed the deal, right?”
One recent poll in Utah showed Hillary Clinton with a sizable lead, but Monson, one of the leading pollsters here, cautions that the lack of a history of primary voting makes it impossible to know how Democrats or Republicans will behave on Feb. 5. For what it’s worth, Obama has an overwhelming advantage among the BYU College Democrats, who have an e-mail list of about 600 names on a campus with 30,000 students. Obama is pushing so hard in the state that he opened a campaign office in the remote southwest town of St. George.
Still, Obama is something of a blank slate here, Monson notes. Clinton, by contrast, incites strongly negative reactions among conservatives, as any conversation with voters quickly uncovers. “I don’t agree with any of her policies, or basically anything,” said Randy Wood, a University of Utah student in the back of the room at the Chelsea Clinton event.
One factor may be that many Utahns have traditional views about the role of women. People here don’t like a woman who is “outspoken and brash,” said Jill Baker, 22, a University of Utah political science major. She’ll go for Obama: “I love Hillary, but one thing about her is she’s very polarizing.”
Exit polls in 2006 showed that 59 percent of Utah voters identified with the Republican Party, and only 26 percent with the Democratic Party. Outside Salt Lake County, the ratio is even more skewed. Of the state’s Republicans, Monson said, 90 percent are Mormons. About 40 percent of Democrats are members of the church.
“We need more Democrats here,” said Republican John Carr, a Romney supporter who knew Romney when both were doing mis- sionary work in France in the 1960s. “It’s so lopsided. . . . It’s not a two-party system here. They do what they want to do.”
Eric Harker, webmaster for the BYU College Democrats, said he hopes that being a Democrat will increasingly be seen as normal in Utah: “People here are realizing that the Democrats aren’t these leftist, baby-hating, tree-hugging people.”
Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, said: “Being a Utah Democrat, obviously it’s a little bit of a lonely existence.” He won office in 2000 when his congressional district was confined to the Salt Lake County area, which has more liberal and more secular voters. But the next year the state legislature redrew the boundaries to include all of eastern and southern Utah. Matheson, a “Blue Dog” Democrat, has to appeal to Republicans if he has any chance of winning a majority: “If I get all the Democrats and all the independents, I’m at a solid 40 percent,” he said.
The practical result is that Utah will almost surely go for the Republican nominee again this fall. Monson said the only chance the Democrats could have of carrying Utah — and it’s still a slim possibility — would be if Obama ran against Re- publican Mike Huckabee, who has angered many people here by what they see as his reluctance to accept that Mormons are Christians.
Romney’s popularity translates into abundant volunteer work on his behalf. Republican students from BYU are wandering into the Romney campaign office in Provo to make calls for their candidate — coincidentally directly across the street from where the Democrats held their party.
“When was the last time there was a presidential campaign office in Provo?” asked Eli Eyre, 24, a fulltime paid Romney staffer overseeing the volunteers at the phone bank. A couple of feet away, a young man on the phone with a Florida voter said, “Doggone it, I apologize that I had to be the 10th.”
That would be the 10th person from the Romney campaign to call the voter.
The night of the Florida primary, nine Romney supporters gathered in the campaign office in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, having braved the latest winter storm to buffet the valley. They had no TV in the office — Romney’s operation is too efficient to allow unnecessary frills — but managed to follow the results on Web sites, projecting streaming online video on the wall. They ate cold pizza and nibbled from a 96-ounce jumbo bag of mini- pretzels. A cheer went up when Romney briefly appeared to take the lead from Sen. John McCain.
But the numbers began going in the wrong direction. They began clicking on individual counties. Where was Romney leading? Where might he find more votes?
“Where’s the county we called? Where’s Hillsborough?” someone asked.
They clicked on Hillsborough: Trending McCain, despite all their best efforts.
“It’s early still,” said volunteer Connie Norris.
McCain began pulling away. It was no longer early.
CNN called the primary for McCain, and after a modest bit of grumbling (“McCain is full of crap, to be honest with you,” said volunteer Dusty Wright), they clapped and cheered their candidate as he made his concession speech.
“I’ll never give up hope. I have faith the American people will see the light,” Norris said.
Conservatives in America need to mobilize on behalf of Romney, Wright said. Conservatives need to recognize that he, Romney, is one of them — that the Mormon religion binds him rather than separating him from the conservative community.
“They don’t come more conservative than Mormons,” he said.
“Democrats aren’t these leftist, baby-hating, tree-hugging people,” BYU student Eric Harker says.
Diane Bailey, in donkey T-shirt at left-center, and fellow members of the BYU College Democrats drink a nonalcoholic toast at a State of the Union party at her apartment. Their political ilk hasn’t been the norm in conservative Utah.