Utah voters have been reliably Republican in presidential elections for more than 40 years now. In fact, only once since 1948 — Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 — has the Democratic candidate carried the Beehive State.
It seems highly unlikely that President Obama will carry Utah in 2012, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, in 1896, the first time Utah voted for president, Democrat William Jennings Bryan carried almost 83 percent of the vote against Republican William McKinley, who won the general election. The fundamentalist Bryan’s appeal was not his faith, but his support of unlimited coinage of silver. Utah and other “silver states,” such as Nevada, went big for the Democrats. However, four years later incumbent McKinley nosed out Bryan in Utah with 50.5 percent of the vote. A better economy helped the Republicans.
In 1916, Utah supported incumbent President Woodrow Wilson over Republican Charles Evans Hughes by an easy 20-point margin. However, beginning in 1920 Utah voted Republican for three state presidential elections.
Democrats longest dominance in Utah presidential politics began in 1932 with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt over incumbent Herbert Hoover. The still young Great Depression made Republicans as toxic in Utah as the party was in many other parts of the nation. In fact, 1932 also saw the re-election loss in Utah of famed Republican U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot. The longtime incumbent Smoot, who was an apostle in the Mormon Church, lost badly to Democratic challenger Elbert Thomas.
Roosevelt would carry Utah in all four of his presidential elections. As an incumbent, Roosevelt’s support never sunk below 60 percent of Utah voters. To provide an idea of Utah Democratic Party dominace during the Roosevelt era, the online Utah History Encyclopedia reports that in the Utah Legislature, there were 45 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the House, and 18 Democrats and 5 Republicans in the Senate.
That was likely the peak of Democrats’ success in Utah but the party continued its presidential success in 1948 with a narrow win by Harry S. Truman over Thomas Dewey. However, the next three presidential elections saw GOP wins in Utah by victor Dwight D. Eisenhower and 1960 loser Richard Nixon.
As mentioned, 1964 was the last presidential win by a Democrat in Utah. President Johnson’s landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater — who at the time was considered an extremist — was echoed in Utah, where Johnson carried almost 55 percent of the vote, or 6 points fewer than his national tally.
The next election started the long slide for Utah Democrats. Nixon swamped Democrat nominee Hubert H. Humphrey and Democrats in the state Legislature lost their majority status. Things have only gotten worse in the last four decades. Even in years where Democrats have won, including 2008, the Democratic Party candidate has stayed mired in the low to mid 30s support.
The issues of the mid 1960s to the early to mid 1970s — the peace movement, gay rights, abortion, the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, other women’s rights issues, affirmative action, welfare — probably played a huge role in moving Mormons to the Republican Party. Whereas Utah Mormons had coalesced behind Democratic Party principles of ending the Depression, fighting a World War and providing security for working families, the post-1964 social, secular and extreme liberal shift in focus moved them away permanently.
Abortion, for example, is an issue wedded to the Democratic Party in Utah. No matter how that may frustrate Utah Democrats, it is nevertheless a reality.
Many Democrats compare the recently passed health care reform law to previous Democratic initiatives such as Social Security and Medicare.
It will be interesting to see if these accomplishments by President Obama move some Utah voters back to the party of FDR. Right now, I’d bet against that happening.
The Web sites Utah.media.edu (Allen Kent Powell’s article “Elections in the State of Utah) and uselectionatlas.org were among sources for this article. This post also was published in Currents, the Standard’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call (801) 625-4400.