SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Bob Bennett's 18-year career in the U.S. Senate could well end in the state GOP convention in two weeks, a broad-ranging new poll of Republican state delegates by the Deseret News and KSL-TV shows.
The Dan Jones & Associates survey, which is also sponsored by the Utah Foundation and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, shows that Bennett, R-Utah, faces a big challenge among the 3,500 Republican delegates who will vote on him and seven other GOP Senate candidates May 8.
Just one key number from the Jones survey: 41 percent of the delegates said they absolutely will not vote for Bennett.
GOP convention rules say the ultimate second-place finisher must have at least 40 percent of the delegate vote to avoid final elimination. And the survey shows Bennett may not reach that percentage in the three rounds of voting.
No U.S. senator from Utah has been run out of office before a general election — defeated in either in a party primary or convention — since the early 1940s.
Hearing the poll results, Bennett said, "It appears this is a two-man race" between himself and attorney Mike Lee.
Despite the hard road at the convention, which Bennett said he recognizes, he's still confident he'll survive to a June GOP primary. "I'd be in good shape there," he added.
A Bennett defeat in the party convention could have far-reaching impacts.
It could change future major elective races in Utah, with candidates paying even greater attention to delegates.
And among the general public it could raise the question of whether the current convention-primary system used by both the Republican and Democratic parties is actually a fair and open process.
Bennett leads voters
While Bennett is in trouble with delegates, he has the lead among Senate candidates among registered Utah voters, although his support there is historically low for a Republican incumbent. According to the Jones poll of Utah voters, Bennett has 27 percent support, while Lee has 9 percent. Businessman Sam Granato, the leading Democrat, is favored by only 5 percent of voters, Jones found.
A large 38 percent of voters are undecided.
Among just registered Republicans, Bennett has the lead with 32 percent of the vote, Lee finishing second with 12 percent. Thirty-five percent of GOP voters are undecided, Jones said.
Thus, should Bennett be eliminated in the convention, he could argue that the GOP is only hurting itself by booting out the leading overall candidate — and the leading GOP contender — according to the vote of 3,500 Republican delegates, who may not be representing the will of the people.
Jones' poll of state GOP delegates shows the incumbent's real convention problems:
Only 21.5 percent of delegates say Bennett should be re-elected to another term. The question is called a "naked re-elect" because none of his challengers are named. In general, an incumbent wants to be above 50 percent in a "naked re-elect" number. Bennett's showing for a well-known officeholder on that question is quite poor.
Jones found that 59.5 percent of delegates said Bennett should not serve another term.
Asked their first choice in the Senate race, 31.2 percent of the delegates favored Lee; 21.5 percent said Bennett; with 17.1 percent choosing businessman Tim Bridgewater.
The other GOP candidates drop off after those top three. Just over 13 percent of delegates are still undecided.
The polling numbers suggest Bennett can survive the convention, if only barely.
But, said Jones, who has polled and studied Utah politics for 35 years, because the convention will hold three rounds of voting, it is key to see a delegate's second choice in the U.S. Senate race.
Bennett is the second choice of only 5.9 percent of the delegates. If that number holds up, Bennett must get a large percent of the "undecided" delegates in the remaining rounds of voting to make 40 percent, the number that will keep him politically alive.
And in all rounds of voting, by far the worst number Jones found on the incumbent is that 41.1 percent of GOP state delegates said they would "absolutely not" vote for Bennett under any circumstances.
That number, statistically speaking, is a killer.
In various scenarios in how the first, second and third round of voting may go, Jones said that the above numbers mean that should Bennett and Lee survive the first round, to avoid being eliminated in subsequent rounds Bennett must get around 80 percent of all the "undecided" delegate votes.
And that is a very high number to reach, Jones said.
Bennett said his internal surveys show a higher percent of undecided delegates. "And so far we're doing pretty well with them."
The delegate poll "is great news," Lee said. "But we will take nothing for granted."
Lee said he'll keep meeting with delegates "almost 24 hours a day right up to May 8. We're going to run like we are way behind."
Jones said that while the above data is statistically correct, with a plus or minus 3.64 percent margin of error, there are other factors that should be taken into account.
First, there are still two weeks until the convention.
Bennett is already running TV ads criticizing Lee. While it's true 3,500 delegates are the deciding convention factor — not the general public to whom the ads are aimed — if Bennett can convince many Utahns, especially Republicans, that Lee is not a viable alternative, then those concerns may filter down to some GOP delegates.
Bennett also realizes that:
Most of the undecided delegates will make up their minds in the next two weeks, so he has a shot at them.
Some delegates may switch their votes before May 8.
And some delegates may change their minds at the convention itself.
Just one convention dynamic: Mitt Romney, former Salt Lake Olympic boss and 2008 GOP presidential candidate, will give a Bennett nominating speech.
Romney has already endorsed Bennett, cut a TV ad for him and held a fundraiser for him in Salt Lake City, so Romney's support is not a surprise.
But seeing and hearing Romney in person — he is arguably the most popular GOP politician in the state (he won the 2008 Utah presidential GOP primary with 90 percent of the vote) — could swing some delegate votes for Bennett on convention day.
Kirk Jowers, head of the Hinckley Institute, said that even though the poll numbers look bad for Bennett, he has life. "It's a narrow path for Bennett in the convention," said Jowers. "But now that Bennett is meeting full time with delegates person-to-person, and with Mitt Romney speaking for him and nominating him, I believe Bennett will make it to a primary."
Asked if it would be fair to Utahns, who may want to vote for him, to have him knocked off the ballot at the GOP state convention, Bennett said the nature of the nominating convention has changed. Years ago state conventions merely winnowed the field to two candidates who would then go to a party primary.
"The idea was that party activists would have a screening role in picking a nominee, but the final decision was left up to the people," Bennett said.
But over time convention rules were changed to give delegates more and more of a chance to pick the final party nominee. Now, if one candidate gets 60 percent of the delegate vote, he's the nominee and there's no party primary.
"Now I'm hearing voices that say, 'Wait a minute, we should go back to the original intent, delegates screen but can't decide' " the nominee, Bennett said. "The people get that final decision."