1 of 2
Deseret Morning News Graphic

Utah will still spend $3.5 million on a Feb. 5, 2008, presidential primary even though the small, very red state may be ignored as major presidential candidates flock to larger states holding primaries that day.

And a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll shows that 70 percent of Utahns don't want to spend that much money on a presidential primary, anyway. Only a fourth said the state should go ahead with the vote early next year.

California — which carries the largest number of Electoral College votes as the nation's most populous state — also decided on a Feb. 5 primary date a few weeks ago. All told, 19 states have either picked the Feb. 5 primary date or their legislatures are considering holding a primary, party caucus or convention that day, various online reports state.

If most of those states ultimately pick Feb. 5, it would turn that day into a nationwide mega-primary, with the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees likely picked on that day.

So, why is Utah spending so much money on a primary election that may be ignored or bypassed by presidential candidates who will be spending their time and money in more populous states?

"It's worth it to have a voice in a Super-Duper Tuesday," said Mike Mower, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s deputy chief of staff and spokesman. "For the first time, Utahns will have a meaningful say in picking both the Republican and Democratic nominees." Voting on Feb. 5 "gives our citizens an opportunity to participate on what is becoming a national primary election," said Todd Taylor, long-time Democratic Party state executive director.

"Without it, we'd be left out completely" — even if so many larger states joining the Feb. 5 date dilutes Utah's impact.

But Utahns are not enthusiastic about a Feb. 5 presidential primary here, the new survey by Dan Jones & Associates found.

Seventy percent of Utahns are against spending $3.5 million on a primary, 25 percent approve, while 5 percent didn't know.

Worse for state Democratic leaders pushing the primary, Jones found that 88 percent of those who said they are Democrats oppose spending the primary vote money. He found that 73 percent of political independents do not want to spend the money on the primary vote, while 62 percent of Republicans don't want the presidential primary.

Utah has not voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Utahns gave President Bush his largest majority of votes both in 2000 and 2004.

Taylor believes that many national candidates will still visit Utah and will buy TV and radio ad time here. "Why would (candidates) skip us? We are a great bargain — it is so much cheaper to buy time here" than in big-state media markets. "And you get (TV ads) into other states." That's because local stations' signals go into surrounding states as far away as Montana, he said.

With a Utah Feb. 5 primary "we are at least guaranteed to participate in some way. Without it we couldn't be participating even symbolically," said Taylor.

A mega-primary does affect the playing field, however, says Utah GOP executive director Jeff Hartley.

"It certainly changes the dynamics for the smaller states like Utah," said Hartley.

But Hartley hopes that Mountain West states can still work together to provide "some synergy around our interests, a voting bloc that can still be relative and important to presidential candidates."

Huntsman and legislative leaders believed holding Utah's presidential primary on Feb. 5, and having neighboring states do likewise, would lead to a number of candidates coming into the region, learning about our issues and concerns.

That could still happen, says Hartley, while admitting that leading candidates probably wouldn't be visiting near the Feb. 5 across-the-nation vote. "A number (of candidates) have already come in to raise money. Maybe they won't be here in the days just before Feb. 5. But perhaps a week or two out" from the mega-primary date, Utah may host some candidates.

The Utah GOP has 39 voting delegates to the 2008 National Republican Convention, to be held in early September in St. Paul, Minn.

Both major parties allocate their convention delegates to some extent on how Republican or Democratic each state is. So, says Hartley, because Utah is a very red state, Republicans here get more voting clout in the national convention than just its population would account for.

The national GOP has about 2,500 voting delegates, so Utah makes up 1.5 percent of that nominating vote.

Utah is an especially a small-time player in national Democratic politics, with leading Democratic presidential candidates not visiting the state at all in the run up to elections. Utah has 29 voting delegates in the 2008 National Democratic Convention in Denver. With 3,000 delegates, that's 0.96 percent of all delegates' votes.

But Huntsman is undeterred by the shifting politics of a national primary. When some legislators suggested the local parties themselves put on a Feb. 5 primary, using the $850,000 already put aside for such a Utah primary, the governor stepped in and pressured GOP leaders to fully fund a state-run $3.5 million primary next year.

"California is spending $60 million" on its Feb. 5 primary, Mower said. Huntsman believes Utah, combined with surrounding states, will provide a "regional campaign," and that will bring in major candidates.

Like former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, who actually traveled to surrounding state legislatures in 1999 trying to get them to sign up for a Western states presidential primary in early March that election season, Huntsman wants Utah and its Western neighbors to have some kind of positive impact in the presidential election.

Utah put aside $700,000 in 2000 for that local primary, even though it was only joined by two other states. However, just before the early March vote here, the major challengers to the front-runners in both parties dropped out.

Utah had only a 10 percent voter turnout in the 2000 presidential primary election, which turned out to be basically meaningless, since even earlier primaries had picked the party nominees.

Utah didn't hold a presidential primary election in 2004 — President Bush was clearly the GOP nominee, and the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature didn't want to spend any money to help state Democrats hold a primary. Democrats organized their own primary that year, spending around $50,000 putting it on.


E-mail: [email protected]