Unaffiliated voters are Utah’s 2nd largest voting block, but they’re not all true independents
Statewide races in Utah are routinely won by Republican candidates, usually by double-digit margins. Mitt Romney, for example, carried the state in the 2012 presidential election with over 72% of the vote.
But Republicans only account for just over half of the state's active voters.
Just about a half-million active voters in Utah count themselves as unaffiliated. They are the second biggest voting block behind Republicans and roughly 28% of the electorate.
So are the state’s unaffiliated voters really independents, or just partisans in disguise? The answer to that could actually be pretty simple.
“It turns out that most of those people, the vast majority of those people, actually identify with a political party,” said Brigham Young University Professor of Political Science Quin Monson.
He isn’t alone in that theory.
“[Voter registration] doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about people’s actual political behaviors,” said James Curry, who is a political science professor at the University of Utah. “Something that’s been a consistent finding in political science for now 70 years is that a lot of people call themselves independents or unaffiliated voters, but they act just like partisan voters. They’ll say that they’re an independent, but they will always vote Democratic or they’ll always vote Republican.”
Another University of Utah professor, Matthew Burbank, offers an additional explanation: Utah’s primary election system.
Although registered Republicans are the only people who can participate in party primaries, an unaffiliated voter can easily switch. Democratic primaries are open to unaffiliated voters as long as they request a ballot with their county clerk beforehand.
“People can then participate on the Democratic side if they want to, they can easily switch to the Republican side if they want to,” Burbank said. “They are in the unaffiliated category because the way parties have chosen to run their nomination processes.”
That makes any campaign looking to beat a Republican an uphill battle. A broad coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans would be needed.
“It makes for an interesting election, but it’s a really tough thing as a campaign to try to pull that off,” said Burbank.
A Democrat has not won statewide in Utah since 1996 when Jan Graham was re-elected as attorney general. In the 2022 U.S. Senate race, where Evan McMullin is running as an independent to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee, the GOP has won every Senate contest in Utah since 1976.