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Provo holding strong as most conservative city

By Ace Stryker - Daily Herald - | Nov 8, 2008

The title of “reddest city” in the United States appears safe in Provo for another four years.

The nonpartisan Bay Area Center for Voting Research gave the city the most-conservative designation in 2005 based on residents’ political leanings, and MSN City Guides reaffirmed the city’s No. 1 status in rankings earlier this year.

With 2008 presidential voting results taken into consideration, it appears Provo is still head-and-shoulders above its closest competition — mostly a smattering of cities in Texas.

Though results specific to Provo precincts aren’t yet available, Utah County voted for Republican candidate John McCain 78 percent of the time, while just 18.4 percent of residents cast a ballot for Democratic contender Barack Obama.

There were plenty of counties across the state and country that turned out for McCain at a higher rate, but they were primarily rural areas without a major city. Historically, urban areas have trended toward Democratic candidates — a trend Provo has bucked in every recent presidential election.

Among Provo’s big competitors, according to the Center for Voting Research, are Lubbock, Abilene and Plano, Texas, followed by Colorado Springs, Colo., and Gilbert, Ariz. The ratings by MSN throw in Amarillo, Texas, too. But in Tuesday’s voting, Taylor County — home of Abilene — voted most conservatively of the bunch, and even it turned out for McCain only 72.5 percent of the time. More than a quarter of voters there went for Obama.

Why so conservative?

Provo Mayor Lewis Billings, a Republican like more than 50 percent of registered voters in the county, said Provo has long trended red because of the conservative values espoused by the GOP. He said some locals may view Democratic candidates favorably on a personal level, but there is a general suspicion about their ties to unpopular items on the national party’s platform.

“I have tremendous respect for the would-be Democratic legislative candidates this time, but I have to say that I am personally very conflicted,” he said. “As much as I respect them, there comes a point when they stand with a party and they have to act as partisans. These are great people, and they would have us forget that there is a partisan tie.”

Just 5 percent of registered voters here are Democrats, according to County Clerk Bryan Thompson. A large bloc of voters in Utah County — about 43 percent — are unaffiliated. But based on election results, they predominantly vote Republican, too.

“In the last dozen years or so, there has not been any Democrat who has won in Utah County at any level,” said Richard Davis, chairman of the county Democratic Party and a political science professor at Brigham Young University.

But that could change, Davis said. Democrats picked up seats across the country Tuesday, including the nation’s highest office. Obama narrowly lost in more metropolitan Salt Lake County by half a percentage point. Utah County is a long way from returns like that — but the blue party did gain ground this time around, he said.

“Two years ago, when there was a Democrat on the ballot — and there weren’t very many on average — a Democratic candidate got 22 percent of the vote,” Davis said. “This year, on average, the Democratic candidates — and there were more of them — got 33 percent of the vote.”

The closest Utah County legislative race showed Republican Mike Morley beating Democrat Debbie Swenson 55 to 45 in House District 66.

Davis said the tide could be turning as a result of people’s disapproval of the current presidential administration. It may take time to reverse the trend, but Democrats had a chance with Tuesday’s elections to prove themselves to Utah County voters, he said.

“There’s nothing that is somehow inevitable about Republicans winning. It is that they have done a better job of organizing and of reaching out to voters than Democrats have,” Davis said. “It’s certainly possible [for a Democrat to win]. I wouldn’t rule that out at all. Utah used to be a competitive state and Utah County used to be a competitive county.”

A mixed history

In fact, Utah voted Democratic in its first election as a state in 1896. The territory had long struggled for statehood, but Republicans in Washington fought it because of its polygamous history and other concerns. In January of that year, Democratic President Grover Cleveland admitted the state to the union, and that November it voted for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who ultimately lost.

“It was because of that that for a long time people in Utah favored Democrats,” said Thompson, a self-described “history buff.”

Utah would vote for a Democratic president five consecutive times between 1932 and 1948. Since then, it has gone blue just one other time — in 1964, when 44 states elected Lyndon B. Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater.

More recently, Utah gave more support to Bush’s second run for the presidency in 2004 than any other state, favoring him 71.5 percent.

Thompson said it seems like it was around the time Orrin Hatch was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976, ousting three-term incumbent Democrat Frank Moss, that the state and the county starting leaning permanently toward the GOP.

“The shift happened sometime in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” he said. “It seems that when the national Democratic Party really started swinging toward the left and taking really strong positions on things like abortion that we saw the change.”

There was still a time 20 or 30 years ago when pockets of steel workers in American Fork and Spanish Fork voted Democratic, but they left when the jobs did, Thompson said. Today the labor landscape has stabilized, but voters never returned, he said.

“My parents back in the mid-’60s were typical of many of the families [in] that there just wasn’t employment opportunities here, and they moved to other parts of the country,” Thompson said. “Now because the job market’s been so strong here, we don’t have the exodus and so our populations stayed very young, and they tend to be very conservative.”

Davis believes that is changing.

“There hasn’t been a sense on the local level that Democrats have appealed to local voters,” he said. “That changed dramatically this year.”

Billings, on the other hand, doesn’t think so. But, he concedes, Republicans have some work to do to refresh their muddled image here and nationwide.

“Republicans right now have a really bad brand reputation of having some ethics issues, and they need to deal with those,” he said. “I think it’s a time where people who largely are in place ought to look among themselves and quit being so puny in their ethics and in their approach.”

Ace Stryker can be reached at 344-2556 or astryker@heraldextra.com.


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