Will Donald Trump win Utah’s 2024 election after Republicans saw low caucus turnout?

Here’s what low Utah GOP turnout during the chaotic caucus night says — and doesn’t say — about the 2024 presidential election and down-ballot races.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A President Donald J. Trump baseball hat sits on a desk during the presidential primary caucuses at Riverton High School in Riverton on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Does low turnout at Utah’s GOP caucus mean trouble for Trump’s 2024 election bid?

Most of the headlines from last week’s Utah Republican caucuses focused on frustration and anger among attendees, prompted by long lines and voting system issues. But, if you look a little closer, there could be some warning signs for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump heading into November.

Unlike a primary election that attracts more casual voters, the caucus system is designed to appeal to small groups of the most intense partisans. Utah Republican officials had hoped a presidential preference poll would boost attendance at the biennial neighborhood meetings. That’s not what happened.

According to active voter registration data from the state, nearly 10% of Utah’s 891,000 registered Republicans cast a ballot in the presidential preference poll. By contrast, about 30% of Utah’s 230,000 Democrats voted in the presidential primary election held on the same day.

While it’s difficult to glean much from the low Republican turnout, there are a few political nuggets.

Donald Trump received just 56% of the vote over Nikki Haley, only winning by 11,700 votes. That’s in line with his less-than-stellar performances in Utah during his two previous presidential campaigns.

In 2016, Trump only got 45.54% of the vote in Utah, his lowest percentage in all the states he carried that year. Four years later, he got 58.13% in Utah, not much better than his 2024 caucus performance.

‘Considerably less enthusiasm for Trump’

Barring a complete electoral disaster, Trump will carry Utah again in November. Tuesday’s results suggest Beehive State Republicans are still uneasy about marking a ballot for the former president.

“Donald Trump still has a problem with more traditional, moderate Republican voters,” Steven Sylvester, a political science professor at Utah Valley University, said. “I don’t expect his numbers to improve from 2016 and 2020. I just think he’s got his solid base of supporters and not much beyond that,”

Political strategist Mike Madrid says Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have historically high unfavorable ratings as they barrel toward an electoral matchup in November, but those numbers are much more problematic for Trump.

“While Biden’s primary results have shown that his challenges with Democrats don’t translate into the voting booth, Trump’s problems appear more existential. Republican voters are regularly polling as ‘anti-Trump’ at rates between 18-23% in exit polls from the primaries that have been held to date,” Madrid said. “This rate is three times what Republican voters were polling four years ago at this time.”

He explains that Trump desperately needs to find a way to bring those “anti-Trump” voters back into the fold. Without them, mathematically, it will become much more difficult for Trump to win come November. In 2020, the incumbent president received 92% of the Republican vote and still lost.

“While a dismal turnout rate alone doesn’t explain dissatisfaction with Trump, coupled with polling data and exit survey, it’s hard not to conclude that there is considerably less enthusiasm for Trump amongst Republicans than he had in 2020 — a race that he lost.”

Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi says Trump only beating Haley by 14 points in cherry-red Utah highlights some looming problems for his campaign on the horizon.

“Trump is weak politically, but it’s being masked because everyone is focused on his margins instead of the unimpressive turnout, the number of Republicans in primaries both voting for Halley, and the high number of her supporters who say they don’t plan on supporting Trump in November,” Trippi said in a text message to The Salt Lake Tribune.

What about down-ballot races?

Can the low turnout for the GOP caucus and apparent apprehension about Trump among Utah Republicans be used to predict what might happen down ballot in November? Sylvester says it would be wise to avoid that temptation.

“We have the presidential race, the governor’s race and an open Senate seat at the top of the ballot. I’d like to think that with those three, whatever issues Trump may have, whatever voter enthusiasm issues there are, those three races should counterbalance each other,” Sylvester said.

He expects voter turnout to be a wash compared to past elections. Turnout shouldn’t drop much because of the state’s universal vote-by-mail system, which makes casting a ballot easy. On the other hand, there’s not much on the ballot this year to drive higher participation, either.

In 2018, voters flocked to the polls drawn by ballot initiatives on legalizing medical cannabis, expanding Medicaid, and whether to create an independent redistricting commission. Those issues pushed turnout to just over 75%, the highest for a Utah midterm election in recent memory.

“All we can safely say about the caucuses is that it was a chaotic system, turnout was low, and Nikki Haley didn’t lose by very much when you compare it with other states,” Sylvester said.

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