If you’ve lived in Utah, you probably know Rod Decker. He was a staple of KUTV Channel 2 News for nearly four decades. Rod recently retired, which has given him time to put together a political history of Utah. It is no secret that Utah is the most reliably Republican state in the nation, but at one time, Utah was a swing state. Rod will tell us how that change occurred.
Rod: Political science professor Frank Jonas taught at the University of Utah. There was a saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” because Maine was on the very east coast and its returns came in first. People watched Maine and they thought usually the nation went that way. He made a joke about it. He said, “As the nation goes, so goes Utah, because Utah voted mostly with the nation. Utah was a normal state. In 1976, it changes. Utah gives up its tradition of voting mostly for winners, and votes most strongly for the loser, President Gerald Ford, Republican, of any state. Next four elections, including that Ford, Reagan, Reagan, first Bush, Utah votes, the most strongly republican of any state. Utah’s had never voted most strongly for a candidate of either party before. It becomes enduringly and strongly Republican. It has only voted Republican since then, and it has been the most Republican state in seven of 11 presidential elections since then. Okay, we were normal, normal, normal, normal, normal, whoops, we’re Republican, Republican, Republican, Republican. It spreads throughout the state government.
Rod also said if only non-LDS voted, it would be the most Democratic state in the Union!
Rod: If only non-Mormon votes had counted, no Mormon votes get to count, Utah is the most democratic state for Al Gore. Utah is the second most democratic state for Barack Obama both times, even against Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney just gets wiped out in Utah. Utah is the fifth most democratic state for Hillary Clinton. Utah would have gone for Reagan the first time, other than that Utah been would have been democrat.
GT: So you’re saying that if we only counted non-Mormon votes.
Rod: Only non-Mormon votes, Utah is the most religiously polarized electorate of any state. We have Latter-day Saints. We have non-Mormons, we call them Democrats and Republicans, but pretty much it’s a religious divide. Okay, so what happened? Well, first Latter-day Saints changed. Latter-day Saints changed in 1976. That was the election after Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision that overturned abortion laws, including Utah’s abortion laws.
Utah has long had a problem with the federal government. In the 1930s and 40s, the United States was involved in the race to build an atomic bomb. Many of those above ground tests took place in the Nevada desert, and fallout from the blasts fell upon southern Utah residents. As a result, Utahns have had a history of opposing the federal government. Rod Decker will tell us more about these tests, as well as Utah’s love/hate relationship with the defense industry.
Rod: Utah was hit by the Great Depression, harder than most other states. What pulled them out was World War II. After World War II, Utah had a big defense sector. Utah for a number of years in the early 1960s, Utah had the largest defense sector of any state in proportion to its economy. I mean, we were nothing compared to California, but California was a bigger deal. Our defense sector provided a bigger percentage of jobs. We had Hill Air Force Base, we had other military installations, and we had a big rocket, a big aerial defense industry. We had Litton. We had Markon. We had Hercules. We had a lot of them.
In World War II, if you had a good job, that was good. But defense was was a good thing to do. We believed in America. We wanted to win the war. By Vietnam, we didn’t believe so much in America. We didn’t particularly care whether our guys won the war, maybe. We weren’t so patriotic. We weren’t so pro defense, and it wasn’t just us, it was the whole country. So then there were a series of controversies that are still going on, though less than they used to, over destroying nerve gas at Toole, over a lab to test biological weapons at Dugway. The big one, the start of them was the downwinder issue where were the United States tested atomic bombs in Nevada, the fallout drifted over southern Utah. It was said thousands died. If you look at the scientific papers, probably fewer–what they could show is maybe 50 or 60, not good, but…
GT: But not thousands, either.
Rod: Maybe only 10, maybe only 10 or 11. I mean, you can’t tell who died. A guy gets cancer and he dies, you don’t know.
GT: Was it from the smoking?
Rod: So yeah, what you do is they do two things. They do dosimetry. They calculate how much radiation he might have been exposed to. Epidemiology it’s called. They calculate how much cancer there was against how much cancer they think there ought to have been. We end up with maybe 10, maybe 50. Now the level of proof has to be high. It has to be 90 or 95% statistically, that it wasn’t just bad luck. That’s the way epidemiology works. Those aren’t special rules to beat up on southern Utahns. That’s the way it works, and by that 10 to maybe 50 or 60 died, mostly the little children, a lot of childhood leukemia.
Were you aware of this history? Would you prefer Utah went back to being a swing state? Were you aware that Roe v. Wade was such a big turning point in Utah politics?