Election surprise: Obama won Salt Lake County voters' nod
Politics » Democrats say win is a big step for party's plans in Beehive State.
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Updated election results released Tuesday show that Salt Lake County voters favored Barack Obama over John McCain -- but just barely -- marking the first time in decades that a Democratic presidential hopeful won the state's most populous county.

With the addition of more than 29,000 provisional and late-arriving absentee ballots, President-elect Obama scored a come-from-behind victory over McCain. The county's official election canvass didn't change the outcome in any other race.

Obama trailed McCain by about 1,900 votes before the provisionals, cast mostly by people who moved but didn't change their voter registration, and absentees were added.

The final result gave Obama a 296-vote victory, which equates to less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

The race was so close that if McCain wanted a recount in Salt Lake County, he could get one. But no one really expects that to happen.

The updated election results have no impact on who won the presidency or even on Utah's five Electoral College votes, which easily went to McCain.

But Obama's Salt Lake County win sure mean a lot to the leaders of the Utah Democratic Party, who watched President Bush win the last two elections by a margin of more than 20 percentage points in the county.

"It is a huge step for us," said party Chairman Wayne Holland.

He has studied the major strides Democrats have made in surrounding western states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, all of which went for Obama. Holland said the shift from Republican elected officials to Democrats only occurred after Democrats started winning in the major metro areas of Denver, Albuquerque and Las Vegas.

He said seeing Obama win Salt Lake County was "our grand hope."

And now that it has come true, he believes it will result in greater Democratic gains throughout the state.

"You will see this start the spread into the rural areas."

Salt Lake County Republican Chairman James Evans is far from convinced. He said Democrats have won in the county before, noting Scott Matheson claiming more votes than Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in 2004, but that it hasn't resulted in Democrat gains throughout the state.

"If you look at the size of McCain's victory in Utah, it is somewhat premature for Democrats to claim any momentum," said Evans.

McCain beat Obama 62 percent to 35 percent in Utah. But Obama had the strongest showing of any Democratic presidential hopeful in Utah since Hubert Humphrey ran in 1968.

He also won three counties -- Salt Lake, Grand and Summit -- while that last two Democratic candidates didn't win even one.

Most of the Democratic gains in the 2008 election happened in Salt Lake County. They won the straight-party voting, retained the county mayor's seat and picked up a seat on the County Council, giving them a 5 to 4 majority.

Democrats also claimed three new state House seats in the Sandy area, including one held by the sitting House Speaker, and one state Senate seat.

But Evans cautions Democrats against being too gleeful, saying Republicans faced "considerable headwinds" this year, with an unpopular President Bush and the growing economic crisis.

He expects Salt Lake County to continue to vacillate between Republicans and Democrats making it the state's biggest political battleground for years to come.

mcanham@sltrib.com

Salt Lake County vote

Election Night results

Obama : 161,696 or 47.9 percent

McCain: 163,579 or 48.4 percent

Final results

Obama: 176,988 or 48.17 percent

McCain: 176,692 or 48.09 percent

Percentages do not add up to 100 percent because of third party candidates

Source: Salt Lake County