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A new poll shows that four GOP presidential candidates are in a statistical tie in Utah which has Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans working on a backdoor way to nominate the man he says local voters really want: Mitt Romney.
On the Democratic side of the race, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in a surprisingly close race among Utahns with Clinton leading Sanders by a 50-40 margin.
That's according to a statewide poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics, conducted by SurveyUSA, that interviewed 989 registered voters between Jan. 6-13.
Four-way tie • The poll found that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, billionaire Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and surgeon Ben Carson are essentially in a tie among those Utahns who plan to vote in the Republican presidential caucuses on March 22.
Cruz has 18 percent support; Trump, 17 percent; and Rubio and Carson each have 15 percent, with other candidates lagging far behind. But that question had a margin of error of 4.9 percent, creating a statistical tie.
"People are really uncertain about these candidates. It is not at all clear what they are getting with any of them," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "Utahns have not united behind any one candidate yet."
Evans, the Utah GOP chairman, said like Republicans nationally, those in Utah are split because the many candidates "all have qualities that appeal to different parts of our Republican base."
He said, "Rubio is inspirational. With Trump, it's outrage and anger. With Carson, it's the 'what's possible' with his life story. And Cruz appeals to the constitutional, libertarian aspect of our party."
Evans said there is "not one candidate who embodies all of these aspects to an acceptable degree." But he says he can think of one who does, and who should be drafted: "I think the candidate that embodies all of that is Mitt Romney," the party's 2012 nominee.
Mitt's back door? • While presidential caucuses and primaries begin next month without Romney on the ballot in any state, Evans said he has been working with other GOP leaders nationally on a back-door plan that could again bring Romney into the contest.
If no one wins on the first ballot at the national convention which is possible if several candidates split wins throughout the primary season rules allow additional candidates to be nominated, if supported by at least eight states.
"So if eight states come together and say we want to nominate Mitt Romney, then his name will go in for consideration. A lot of states are talking," Evans said. "I have support from seven states. I've got one more to go."
But the Utah chairman concedes a lot could happen before then, and it is possible that party support will coalesce around one candidate during the primary season. Also, Romney has repeatedly said he is not running nor seeking the nomination.
Trumped • Perry said Trump is the one candidate among front-runners who appears to be losing steam in Utah, and he is so disliked by many party faithful that some may choose to sit out the general election if he is the nominee.
One of those is Amy Clements of Spanish Fork, who was surveyed in the poll and favored Cruz "because he is a conservative through and through."
She wonders if she could bring herself to vote for Trump if he is the nominee. "That's a tough one because I don't like Hillary Clinton. But for me, Donald Trump is not genuine and he says what he thinks others want to hear."
Still, Trump has his strong supporters. Mark Taylor of Taylorsville, another survey participant, says he likes Trump's stand against illegal immigration. "We've got to control the borders. It's the final issue before the country is a molypot of opportunists and thieves."
Ray Robinson of St. George, another survey participant, said he likes Trump "because he's not a politician, he's a businessman. What made him a successful businessman could make him a successful president. He knows how to solve problems and delegate."
History shows that whoever emerges as the nominee will likely modify stands and methods to "make sure they retain their Republican base," Evans said.
Democratic side • The poll showed just a 10-point margin between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders among Utahns who said they plan to vote in the Utah Democratic presidential caucus in March.
Sanders "certainly has been coming on, not only here but in other parts of the country," Perry said. But, "I think that spread is not going to change substantially here in the state of Utah."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon doesn't seem surprised by the competitive race.
"I have had this sense that Bernie Sanders' campaign had a strong organizing effort here, and that is reflected in the poll."
He added that, just as he's done nationwide, Sanders has "gathered excitement here around his campaign. Obviously, Hillary still seems to be the candidate to beat. But it looks like a close race."
The polling data show that Utah Democrats who are LDS favor Clinton by a 64-24 margin, while non-Mormon Democrats essentially tie in support between the two candidates with Sanders holding a slight 45-44 margin.
Corroon said excitement about who will replace President Barack Obama should lead to strong voter turnout by Utah Democrats and independents.
"I think there is a sense of excitement since there is an open seat this year," he said. "Similarly to past presidential elections, we expect to see a much higher turnout this year for Democrats and independents."
Forty-two percent of the 989 registered voters interviewed for the poll said they would caucus with Republicans, 19 percent with Democrats and 39 percent were unsure or not planning to participate.
A polling partnership
The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics have formed a partnership to commission polls during this important election year. This is the first story in what will be a series in coming days from a poll conducted statewide from Jan. 6-13. The survey explored election preferences but also looked at issues of public policy deemed significant heading into the 2016 legislative session. The Tribune and Hinckley anticipate additional polls in coming months, along with, perhaps, public forums focusing on some of the topics addressed in the surveys.