Headshot of Jason Perry

Choosing a leader during a pandemic

On Tuesday, June 30, 2020, Utah held its Republican primary election. For the first time since 2004, there is an open seat for governor and four Republicans ended up on the primary ballot. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox ultimately came out ahead with about 36% of the votes.

From the COVID-19 pandemic to record voter turnout, we asked Jason Perry, vice president for government relations and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the U, to weigh in on the primary and look ahead to the general election in November.

1. What were your key takeaways from the Republican primary in Utah’s gubernatorial race?

We knew this was going to be a close race and it was in every respect. The number one takeaway, though, is the amazing amount of participation. We had more than 500,000 votes cast, which is a record for a Utah primary election. For comparison, we had about 318,000 in 2016 and about 381,000 in 2018. On top of that, we had more candidates and more options than we’ve ever had as a byproduct of the two ways to get on the ballot: the caucus convention system and signatures.

2. With four candidates vying to be the Republican nominee, the winner, Spencer Cox received about 36% of the vote, which means 64% of voters did not vote for him. Do you view that as a problem?

On the one hand, I think it does reveal an issue in the system that we have, but on the other hand, options are a good thing. It used to be that the options were narrowed by the caucus convention system. Now, candidates can get on the ballot with signatures, which is how Jon Huntsman and Thomas Wright ended up on the ballot. With four very qualified candidates ranging from moderate to conservative, people were able to find someone they agreed with, which sometimes you don’t get. With the system and laws we have, it is possible in a primary to have a candidate who does not get a majority of the voters, but I still think it’s better to have more options than fewer.

Ultimately, I predict Republicans in Utah will unite around their candidate for the general election no matter what. For the next four months, Spencer Cox is going to spend all his time trying to win over the rest of those voters and give them a reason to participate on Nov. 3.

3. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect this primary?

The pandemic impacted every single aspect of this race. Cox launched his campaign in May of 2019, which is early. That was six months before Huntsman returned from his post as ambassador to Russia. Cox was planting seeds while other candidates were still surveying the field, of course not knowing that in a few short months, the pandemic was going to hit. By the time we got to the most important time of every campaign, these candidates could no longer meet face-to-face with voters. There were no townhalls, barbecues or parades. Every traditional aspect of a campaign was changed by this pandemic.

Another big impact was Utah going to completely mail-in ballots, which certainly increased participation.

4. Did those Democrats who changed their voter registration to participate in this Republican primary have an impact?

They certainly helped us achieve that record number of participants. We don’t know who those democrats voted for yet, but we will be doing some research on that. We still have about 100,000 ballots that haven’t been counted yet so as soon as those come in, we’ll know more.

5. There is an assumption in Utah that the Republican nominee becomes the governor of Utah, but we still have a general election in November between Cox and Chris Peterson, the Democratic nominee. How does that assumption influence the general election?

Historically, the Republican who wins the primary is going to be the governor for the state of Utah. This is still largely a Republican-leaning state, particularly with these statewide races, but there is absolutely still a legitimate race to be had here. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Chris Peterson in the next few months. There will be debates and there will be policies put forward by both the candidates, giving Utahans an opportunity to choose between the two of them.

6. What can voters do to get involved between now and the general election in November?

If ever there was a time to engage, it is now. Research those running for office, register to vote and turn in a ballot on or before Nov. 3.

This is a crucial time to get a picture of the leadership qualities of the candidates. We need someone in this position who’s going to help lead our state out of this pandemic and jumpstart the economy. It’s one thing to be an effective leader when things are going well. Cox and Peterson are going to have to show they can also be leaders during a crisis.

Voters can get to know the candidates by writing them letters, researching them, watching the virtual townhalls and asking them hard questions. Find out who can help your family and who can impact the economy, your job and your health. We had a record number of voters in this primary and we need to keep that momentum going into November.