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Mia Love has a strong lead in Utah's 4th Congressional District race, but a poll commissioned by Doug Owens has given the Democratic challenger renewed hope that he can close the gap.
Owens' poll, released to reporters Monday, shows that Love is ahead 50 percent to 41 percent in the open-seat contest, and some respondents were inclined to switch their support to the Democrat when short positive bios were read. This is the first survey of this race to be released to the public.
"There is a path to victory when people understand who I am and what I stand for," said Owens, a corporate attorney. "I want people to understand that it is a highly competitive race."
Love's campaign isn't so sure it is. The Republican has spent heavily on polls but isn't releasing any results. That said, her campaign manager Dave Hansen commented: "We are showing a wide margin, let me put it that way. A significantly wider margin."
The public should be hesitant when reviewing internal campaign polls, said University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank. On one hand, he said, candidates have a vested interest in getting good data from respected pollsters, so they know exactly where they stand in their campaigns. But campaigns also release such results largely for political reasons, namely to boost fundraising.
"You have to be careful unless you know the polling organization, you know all the sampling information and you know the questions," Burbank said. "Even when all those things line up, it's always possible that it is not a representative poll."
Owens hired Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a California-based firm used widely by Democratic candidates, city governments and medical associations.
FM3 surveyed 400 residents July 15-17 in the 4th District, which includes western Salt Lake and Utah counties and parts of central Utah. Only people who said their chance of voting was at least 50 percent were included and 44 percent said they lean Republican, 27 percent said they lean Democrat and 18 percent said they were independents.
Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, who narrowly lost to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in 2012, has a 52 percent favorable rating and a 42 percent unfavorable rating, according to this poll. Owens had a 21 percent favorable and a 5 percent unfavorable rating.
Only 6 percent of respondents said they didn't know or couldn't rate Love, while 74 percent were unfamiliar with Owens.
Burbank said it makes sense that most respondents didn't know Owens, who is a first-time candidate, though he was surprised that 41 percent support the Democrat at this stage in a district that skews heavily Republican.
"That seems like a very strong number for him," he said.
Hansen said Love's internal polls don't show such a high unfavorable rating for his candidate.
"We feel very comfortable where Mia is," he said. "This race is not wrapped up. It is not over with in any way, shape or form. Like most races, they can go either way, so like most races you have to work hard."
Hansen noted that there's been no indication that national Democratic groups consider the race competitive, unlike in the Matheson-Love showdown.
Owens said his poll shows that as long as he can introduce himself to voters, he can win them over.
"I'll be an independent voice, working on bipartisan pragmatic solutions," he said. "That's what people want."
The poll read one paragraph descriptions of both candidates that hew closely to their campaign messages and then asked respondents if that changed for whom they would vote.
Owens was described as "a sixth-generation Utahn, successful corporate defense attorney, and proud father of four who is running for Congress to help end the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and find pragmatic, bipartisan solutions to revive the American middle class, strengthen our families and improve the quality of life for Utahns."
The poll described Love as "a former mayor of Saratoga Springs who is running for Congress to bring common-sense, conservative values of limited government, personal responsibility and fiscal discipline to a federal government that has grown too big and too expensive."
Sixty percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Love and 80 percent had a favorable opinion of Owens after a pollster read the descriptions. And in the head-to-head matchup, Owens surged to a 48 percent to a 41 percent lead.
The campaign did not release its full poll results.
Owens said he's confident in the poll's results, saying it was "an honest shot" at seeing where he stood in what is expected to be the state's closest federal contest.