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Despite early stumbles on the campaign trail, Gov. Gary Herbert holds a commanding 45-point lead over his rival in the Republican primary, Jonathan Johnson, with two weeks until Election Day.
The Johnson campaign disputes the numbers, arguing that it has been riding a wave of momentum since Herbert made comments to a group of lobbyists that he would be willing to go anywhere to meet with donors and his reversal on Common Core education standards.
But a month after Herbert branded himself "Available Jones" a reference to a character in the Li'l Abner comic strip who would do anything for a price a poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics found the governor is leading Johnson, 69 percent to 24 percent among likely Republican voters.
"This shows the challenge of running against a relatively popular incumbent governor, and to make the challenge successful, a candidate has to find at least one constituency that is strongly supportive," said Chris Karpowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
Herbert, who is seeking his second full term in his third gubernatorial election since taking office in 2009, is besting Johnson among every demographic in the poll regardless of age, religion and, perhaps most surprisingly, among self-described "very conservative" Republicans. Herbert performs best among voters over age 50 and does well among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It looks to me like Jonathan Johnson is not as well known as he will probably need to be to be successful, and isn't beating Herbert among any segment of the Republican Party, so that means he's got a tough road ahead of him," Karpowitz said. "He has to both introduce himself to voters … and also convince them that they should abandon their incumbent, and those are difficult things to do."
Herbert's campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, said it's "another strong poll" for the governor's campaign and mirrors the numbers they have seen in other independent surveys, as well as their own internal polling.
"Ultimately, the governor is a firm believer that, while polls are ongoing, we actually have people casting ballots right now, so that's the poll that matters most," Carpenter said. "So he's on the campaign trail working hard to earn every vote."
Absentee and mail-in ballots were sent last week in 20 of 29 counties and early voting and by-mail voting is underway. In-person voting will be held on primary election day, June 28.
On Tuesday, the Johnson campaign released its internal polling that showed Herbert leading by just 11 among Republicans who voted in the 2012 and 2016 primaries. After asking a series of questions to "educate" respondents talking points about how Herbert had sought federal education dollars, had "pay-for-play" meetings with lobbyists, and that he had been a politician for 25 years the margin closes to a statistical dead heat, 43 percent to 42 percent in Herbert's favor.
While it is essentially what is referred to as a push-poll, the campaign said it shows voters are changing their minds and the race is winnable.
"This polling shows that as we continue to inform voters of Jonathan's plan for the future and Herbert's misdeeds on Common Core, raising taxes and his 'Available Jones' comments, they quickly move towards Jonathan and the race is very close," said Johnson's campaign manager, Dave Hansen. "We are confident that Jonathan is going to win this race and June 28th will be a long night for Gary Herbert."
In a recent interview, Johnson said his campaign's internal polling had him trailing by about 10 percent or 11 percent, with about a third of the electorate undecided. If two-thirds of the voters break his way which Johnson said is possible, since undecideds tend to go to the challenger he will win the election.
The anti-Common Core message Johnson's opposition to education standards that he says are imposed by the Obama administration under the threat of withholding federal education funding has resonated with Nancy Perry, a mother of 11 from Sandy who plans to vote for Johnson.
"I'm really quite upset with Common Core. I do not believe it's in our best interest. … I don't like them asking questions that I think are really manipulative to the kids," Perry said. "I'm sure there's a lot of great things [Herbert] is doing and I have a lot of friends who like the governor, and he seems like a nice person. … I think [Johnson] is a constitutionalist and I think that's the direction we need."
After losing to Johnson 55 percent to 45 percent at the state Republican convention in April, Herbert abruptly changed course on Common Core and the standardized SAGE test, calling on the Utah Board of Education to abandon the testing and revisit the core standards.
After years of defending the Common Core standards as Utah-centric benchmarks, Herbert said his change of heart showed that he was willing to listen to voters and find a better approach.
The Tribune poll showed that 51 percent of Utah voters oppose the state using Common Core standards and, not surprisingly, Republicans are even more adamantly opposed, with nearly two-thirds of voters opposed to the standards.
Herbert seems to have weathered the Common Core storm, as well as the fallout from the fundraising comments in a meeting with prominent lobbyists an audio recording of which was obtained by The Tribune in which he said he was turning over the running of the state to his lieutenant governor and chief of staff so he could campaign on "high-giddyup," and that he was available to meet with donors any time and discuss their issues.
"One would expect them to be damaging and Jonathan Johnson is running ads that highlight those quotes," Karpowitz said. "Perhaps people just aren't seeing those ads or they aren't paying attention to the race at this point."
While Johnson has hammered Herbert over Common Core and "Available Jones," Herbert has run on the economic recovery since he took office in 2009 and praise from national publications for the management of the state.
David Edlund of Cottonwood Heights said he's generally pleased with Herbert's performance and will be voting for him in the primary.
"I just think he's done a fairly good job in the time he's been in. The state seems to be doing fairly well. And he seems like more of a moderate than Johnson. Johnson seems like he's just a little too far right-wing for me," Edlund said. "There's stuff [Herbert] has done I haven't agreed with, but, given the options, he's my best choice."
Fewer than half of Utahns 48 percent have a favorable opinion of Herbert, according to the poll, and his approval rating has dropped from 55 percent when The Tribune last asked the question in January.
However, he fares well where it will count with the Republicans who will vote in the GOP primary. Among those voters, Herbert's approval rating is a healthy 67 percent.
But voters are largely indifferent toward, or unfamiliar with, Johnson. Twenty-one percent of all voters and 25 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Johnson. Fifty-four percent of Republicans are neutral toward or have no opinion of Johnson.
The winner of the Republican Primary will face the Democratic nominee, Mike Weinholtz, in the November election. Weinholtz won his party's nomination at the Democratic state convention.
In a head-to-head matchup, Herbert leads Weinholtz 55 percent to 34 percent. Johnson narrowly outpaces Weinholtz, as well, edging him 38 percent to 35 percent.
The poll was commissioned by The Tribune and Hinckley Institute and conducted between June 2 and June 8. SurveyUSA polled 517 likely Republican voters, using automated calls to contact voters on their home phones and online surveys sent to cellphone users, to ask whom they would support in the Republican primary. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
For the general-election questions, 1,238 likely voters were surveyed using the same methodology. Those results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.