SALT LAKE CITY — If Donald Trump becomes the Republican Party's nominee, Utahns would vote for a Democrat for president in November for the first time in more than 50 years, according to a new Deseret News/KSL poll.
"I believe Donald Trump could lose Utah. If you lose Utah as a Republican, there is no hope," said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a top campaign adviser to the GOP's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.
The poll found that may well be true. Utah voters said they would reject Trump, the GOP frontrunner, whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the Democratic candidate on the general election ballot.
While Clinton was only slightly ahead of Trump — 38 percent to 36 percent — Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, holds a substantial lead — 48 percent to 37 percent over the billionaire businessman and reality TV star among likely Utah voters.
"Wow. Wow. That's surprising," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "Any matchup in which Democrats are competitive in the state of Utah is shocking."
Also surprising is the number of Utahns who said they wouldn't vote if Trump were on the ballot. Sixteen percent said they'd skip the election if Trump and Clinton were their ballot choices, while 9 percent said they wouldn't vote if it was a Trump-Sanders matchup.
Both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich would beat either Democratic candidate in Utah, the poll found. Sanders came closest against Cruz, with 39 percent of Utahns backing Sanders to 53 percent for Cruz.
The Democratic candidates fare even better against Trump among Utah's many unaffiliated voters. Clinton would win Utah by 17 points, the poll found, while Sanders would see a 36-point victory if the election were held today. The margin of error for unaffiliated voters is nearly 7 percent.
The poll was conducted for the Desert News and KSL on March 8-15 by Dan Jones & Associates of 500 registered voters statewide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent, so the Clinton-Trump results fall within that margin.
Utah hasn't voted for a Democratic candidate for president in a general election since then-President Lyndon Johnson was running against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964.
But Karpowitz said Republicans better be paying attention to Trump's lack of support in a state long considered a GOP stronghold if they expect to reclaim the White House this year.
"I know it is early and these things can change," Karpowitz said. "But the fact that a Donald Trump matchup with either Clinton or Sanders is a competitive race is a canary in a coal mine for Republicans."
The BYU political science professor said the poll makes it clear that if the GOP nominates Trump, "they may have trouble, serious trouble, in reliably Republican states like Utah" let alone the rest of the country.
Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of "Meet the Press," said Republicans see Utah as a state that can help stop Trump from securing the party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
"That's what the game is now," Todd said. "Both Cruz and Kasich need to pick up as many delegates as they can, but more importantly, it's about denying Trump delegates."
Kasich told the Deseret News/KSL Editorial Board in an hour-long meeting Saturday before a campaign stop in St. George that he expects the nomination to be decided at the convention, where delegates will be looking for the most electable candidate.
"By the way, the two people I'm running against cannot get elected in a general election," Kasich said. Delegates "are actually going to think about who might be a good president. That actually could happen."
He made it clear he's not staying in the race to block Trump's nomination.
"That's not my deal. If I were in this to stop somebody I'd get out because it wouldn't be worth my time. I'm in because I think that I have the skills, the record and the vision to be able to get elected," Kasich said.
Cruz told the editorial board in a conference call before an appearance in Provo that he and Trump are the only candidates "who have any path to winning the nomination."
The Texas senator said Kasich has no chance of beating Trump and the "only role Kasich is playing right now is as a spoiler because every vote for John Kasich is effectively a vote for Donald Trump."
While Cruz said he believes he can win the nomination outright, even though he'd need 78 percent of the remaining delegates, he also called a contested convention "entirely possible." But Cruz said he'd be able to win that, too
He said Kasich, who would need to win more than 100 percent of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination, couldn't even be considered at a contested convention without winning at least seven more states under current party rules.
Leavitt and Romney are playing big roles in the effort to keep Trump off the ticket.
In Tuesday's Republican presidential caucus in Utah, Leavitt is backing Kasich. Romney, who made a major speech condemning Trump at the University of Utah earlier this month, announced on Facebook Friday he'll vote for Cruz.
"The GOP convention is going to be contested," Leavitt said, because he believes no candidate — not even Trump — can win the 1,237 delegates needed to lock up the nomination.
He said he doesn't think any candidate is strong enough in Utah to meet the 50 percent threshold needed to win all 40 of the state's Republican delegates, so Utahns should vote for whomever they believe will be the best president.
"I believe it's best to leave strategy to the campaigns," Leavitt said.
Romney sees it differently. He said in his Facebook post that while he has campaigned for Kasich and would have voted for him in Ohio, "a vote for Gov. Kasich in future contests makes it extremely likely that 'Trumpism' would prevail."
Cruz said Romney "made clear that our campaign is the only campaign that has a path to beating Donald Trump" and that is the choice voters in Utah and the rest of the country now face.
Kasich, who said voters are just now getting to know him after his Ohio win, said Romney's statement means, "Mitt's nervous."
"Am I disappointed? Not really. Nothing surprises me in terms of what's happening in the election," he said.
Trump reacted to Romney at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City Friday by asking a crowd of supporters whether they were sure Romney is a Mormon.
The candidate's son, Donald Trump Jr., said in an interview that his father's comment was not intended to question Romney's faith but whether he is living up to the values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It doesn't seem like what Mitt's been doing is very much in line with those characteristics and those traits that I know of Utahns, of the LDS community," Trump Jr. said, calling Romney "incredibly disingenuous."
Trump Jr. acknowledged Utah will be a tough state for his father to win.
"I'm hoping for a good showing. I don't think it's certainly one of our stronger states," he said, citing his father's coming across "as very brash, and in a place like this, I can understand that doesn't go over as well."
Trump himself has warned last week in a CNN interview there would be "riots" if his Republican opponents are able to force a floor fight at the convention to determine the nomination.
His son said that would reinforce his father's message to voters, that the system is rigged against them, and "would destroy, certainly the RNC (Republican National Committee) if not U.S. politics as we know it."
Contributing: Keith McCord, Nicole Vowell