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Utah’s Bennett May Be First Incumbent Casualty

Utah Republicans have an unusual procedure by which they nominate their candidates. The party holds a convention, which this year will occur May 8th at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. Some 3,500 delegates, who are selected at local precinct meetings, are responsible for selecting a slate of candidates. There are several ballots to nominate the candidates. After the first ballot, all but the top three candidates are dropped. The next ballot whittles the field down to two. Then there is the final ballot: if one of the candidates gets at least 60 percent of the vote, he becomes the nominee. Otherwise, the party instead holds a primary on June 22, which is open to all registered Republican voters.

So, there are four ways that incumbent senator Bob Bennett — or any other Republican — could lose:

1. By failing to finish among the top three on the first convention ballot.
2. By failing to finish in the top two on the second convention ballot.
3. By failing to achieve at least 40 percent of the final convention ballot.
4. By failing to achieve at least 60 percent of the vote on the final convention ballot, and then losing the primary.

All of these scenarios present some danger to Bennett, but especially numbers 2 and 3. Mason-Dixon’s new poll of 400 convention delegates has Bennett in third place, at 16 percent, behind Mike Lee (37 percent) and Tim Bridgewater (20 percent) and just ahead of Cherilyn Eagar (11 percent). Another survey by the Utah-based pollster Dan Jones found Bennett in second place at 21.5 percent, behind Lee (31.2 percent) but ahead of Bridgewater (17.1 percent) and Eagar (10.1 percent). Both polls also show that Bennett has very little second-choice support, which would imply that he’s not likely to pick up very votes as other candidates drop out.

It appears likely, then, that Bennett will survive the first ballot. But then he begins to have problems. Since Eagar’s delegates and those supporting other minor candidates are likely to switch their support to someone other than Bennett on the second ballot, he’s at substantial risk of falling out of the top two and being dropped at that stage. And if he survives, the remaining candidate — most likely Lee — has a good chance of getting to 60 percent of the vote on the run-off ballot: Mason-Dixon has Lee ahead 51-18 in the event of a run-off, which means that he’d only need to pick up a small fraction of of the undecideds to achieve that 60 percent threshold.

If Bennett limps through the convention, his odds might improve, as a Rasmussen poll showed him leading in candidate preference among likely primary voters. Still, with only 37 percent of the vote in what Rasmussen tested as a multi-way field, there would be no guarantees once he were running against just one other opponent; 43 percent of likely primary voters view Bennett unfavorably, according to Rasmussen.

So from a polling standpoint, Bennett is in a great deal of trouble. But can we trust the polls? It’s hard to know. Mason-Dixon and Dan Jones have good reputations, and it should give us more confidence to see that their numbers are more-or-less in line with one another. With that said, surveying a sample of convention delegates is not something that pollsters have to do very often. The polls do have one advantage: between Mason-Dixon (400 delegates) and Dan Jones’s (528 delegates), an usually large proportion of the 3,500 delegates to the state convention will theoretically have been surveyed, reducing the margins of error. On the other hand, without knowing more about how the pollsters drew up their samples, it’s possible that faulty selection procedures could impact upon the results. Also, the conventions — somewhat like the Iowa caucuses — are a dynamical situation in which the delegates will be interacting with one another, which contributes to volatility.

The thing is, however, that it would arguably be quite rational for Utah Republicans to dispose of Bennett. He’s no liberal, but he ranks as only about the 27th most conservative Republican senator in a state with just about the most conservative electorate. A more conservative Republican, moreover, would be very unlikely to lose the general election — not in Utah, and not in this political environment. Our forecasting model gives a generic Utah Democrat only about a 2 percent chance against a generic Utah Republican, which probably amounts to the contingency of a huge scandal or gaffe. The delegates to the Republican convention — a hand-picked and self-selected group of conservative activists — are surely smart enough to know this, or at least to recognize that Bennett does occasionally depart from the party line. His candidacy is not dead on arrival, but he is an underdog to survive.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.