Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Could Evan McMullin win Utah?

Evan McMullin (I-UT)
It's not often that I'm thrown completely by a poll in politics.  After observing elections like a religion for some 25-odd years, I don't really have a lot of things that throw me off, but this morning a Deseret Poll (one of Utah's most prestigious news organizations, one that it's worth noting generally leans conservative) had to be one of them.  The poll, conducted in the wake of the recent Access Hollywood tapes featuring Donald Trump and Billy Bush discussing sexual assault, showed Donald Trump, the Republican Party nominee, at 26%, as well as Hillary Clinton at 26% and independent Evan McMullin within striking distance of these two at 22%.

There's been a lot of surprise polls this past week, including a number that showed Alaska competitive and Ohio now a blowout, but there are several striking things about this poll in particular.  For starters, this is a state that Republicans have won since 1964.  There's not a lot of those left, quite frankly.  In fact, Utah is tied with Idaho, Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and the Dakotas as the longest current streak without voting for a Democrat nationally (the reverse, for the record, is Minnesota, which hasn't gone for a Republican since 1972).  Mitt Romney won the state by nearly 50-points (his best overall state of 2012), and even in landslide elections Republicans can count on the state.  The fact that it could be remotely in play suggests that Donald Trump's campaign is done-with a tie, it's equally as likely that Hillary Clinton takes the state as Trump, ending that 52-year streak, and with it the state's six electoral votes.  It goes without saying there's almost no conceivable way that Donald Trump could win the White House without taking the Beehive State.

The larger issue here, though, isn't just around Clinton, but around what this means nationally, and specifically what it might mean for McMullin.  Let's start with Clinton.  As I stated above, Clinton doesn't really need Utah.  Don't get me wrong, she'd like to have it-every electoral vote that Clinton can put into her camp at this point is a win, and increasing her overall margin and mandate (not to mention it looks nicer in her inevitable presidential library map to have more blue than red).  But it's next to impossible to look at an electoral situation where Utah's six electoral votes are make-or-break for either candidate-this is not going to be the state that swings the election.

It could, however, have a dramatic effect down-ballot, particularly if the Democrats are actually within reach of the House.  Many pundits (and Nancy Pelosi) have been crowing that the huge swing in the generic congressional ballot and Trump's implosion at the top of the ticket may have put the House into play.  If that's the case, it won't be in play by a wide margin-it's hard to imagine Pelosi getting much more than 35 even in the rosiest of seats, and she needs thirty to win the House.  That means that every seat is going to matter if it's truly in-play.  One of those seats is Utah's 4th district, where Rep. Mia Love, who had a surprisingly close election two years ago when she defeated Democrat Doug Owens, is in a tight rematch.  If Democrats in the state are emboldened (or more likely, Republicans stay home), that would put a severe damper on Love's chances, and could cause Owens to win as a part of this pandemonium.  With every seat mattering, the House seat could end up being significantly more important to Democrats than if Clinton wins at the top of the ballot, since Utah's 4th district is more liberal than the state at-large.

However, the big story here isn't just that Clinton could win the state, but also that Evan McMullin is within four points.  For those of you who learned Gary Johnson and Jill Stein's names and are clueless about who McMullin is, you're not alone.  Even in Utah, a state that McMullin has made central to his campaign (sometimes it feels like he's simply running a primary-style "favorite son" race there), he only enjoys a 52% name identification.  McMullin entered the race as a conservative alternative-a former GOP operative, he's never held elected office and is only 40-years-old.  He has absolutely no chance of winning, but in a state like Utah, where voting for a Democrat is anathema, he's a viable alternative for the Mormon community in the state that has largely rejected Trump since the primaries.

McMullin still has a bit of a climb.  It's possible, of course, that this is an outlier (all other polls have shown Trump with a lead), and McMullin has never done this well in a statewide poll.  He will have to fight both the Republican and Democratic Parties in the state, both of which will invest if this feels competitive.  Third party candidates traditionally lose support on election day compared to polls; people don't tend to get out and vote for a candidate that has no chance of actually winning.  And it's not clear whether he can stand up to the scrutiny of more national spotlight-Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have both badly under-performed when the media looked more closely at they and their policies.

However, it's not unprecedented.  It's worth noting that in 1992, Ross Perot (while not strong enough to win any electoral votes outright) was second place in two states against Bush and Clinton, one of which was Utah.  McMullin could be tapping into the same group of voters who didn't like Bush's policies but couldn't bring themselves to vote for a Clinton.  McMullin, were he to win, would be the first third-party candidate to legitimately win a state's electoral votes since 1968 (George Wallace, who was, like McMullin, a regional candidate who gained from a traditionally one-sided state loathing their party's nominee).  It would probably not endear him much to the party for future runs (it's hard to see him making it through a primary after challenging the Republican nominee, and it's worth noting that his independent run is only working because Trump is so universally hated in Utah), but it would put him in a position that Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson all have missed out on achieving: being more than just a footnote, but someone who actually won electoral votes.  He can take comfort in knowing, should he win, he'll get a paragraph in every political almanac for the rest of time.  Considering how late he started the race and how little known he is nationally, this has to be better than he could have hoped for this year.

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