SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to some hotly contested races — and plenty of campaign ads — voter turnout for the general election could reach 60 percent, state elections director Mark Thomas is predicting.
"What we are seeing is there are some people who are excited," Thomas said, both by the Utah races and the national push by the GOP to take control of Congress and other offices around the country.
Even before Election Day, more than 12 percent of the state's registered voters had cast an early ballot. That's nearly twice the number that voted early in the 2006 mid-term election.
If Thomas' forecast is accurate, voter turnout this year will still fall short of 2008, when nearly 68 percent of Utah's registered voters cast a ballot in the election that put President Barack Obama in office.
At the top of the ticket this time are the U.S. Senate and congressional races and the special election for the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term. Huntsman resigned in August 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China.
The heated race between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and his Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, is helping to attract more attention than usual to this year's balloting, Thomas said. The same goes for the increasingly close 2nd District congressional race between Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Republican Morgan Philpot.
"With the campaigns spending large amounts on advertising, that certainly helps in getting people interested," he said. "Look at what the candidates spend. It's millions and millions of dollars."
Local advertising executives said this has been a surprisingly strong year for campaign spending.
"I think it's bigger than most anyone expected," said Tom Love, president of Love Communications. "I think the expectations, from talking to my friends in TV and radio, were that it was going to be healthy. And it's better than healthy. It's robust."
Dale Darling, director of sales for KSL-TV and KSL.com, agreed. "It's better than anyone would have predicted, maybe 20 to 30 percent," he said.
Quin Monson, associate director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the negative campaign ads from Corroon and both candidates in the 2nd District race may have had the most impact on voter turnout.
"They might get turned off by it," Monson said. "But it's kind of like watching a car crash or a train wreck. It's not pleasant, but you can't advert your eyes."
Negative ads signal a competitive race, Monson said, and their messages stick with voters already motivated by the anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent mood of the country.
Despite the large number of early voters this election, candidates continued to campaign hard Monday and weren't expected to stop until the polls close today at 8 p.m.
As of Monday morning, the lieutenant governor's office reported more than 150,000 of the state's 1.2 million active registered voters have already cast their ballots, about one-fourth of the total votes expected in this year's election.
The number of early voters could increase as more absentee ballots come in, Thomas said. This year, he said, an unusually high number of absentee ballots were requested.
Pollster Randy Shumway said the early voting is not likely to affect the overall turnout in the election.
"I would say that represents people discovering that they can vote on their schedule," he said. "There's a lot of research that indicates early voting does not increase the number of eventual voters."
Shumway said the percentage of Republicans voting early is slightly higher than the percentage of Democrats, and almost double the percentage of unaffiliated voters.
His polling firm, Dan Jones & Associates, showed Republicans leading in most major races in the latest Deseret News-KSL-TV poll.
The exceptions are the 2nd District congressional race and in Salt Lake County, where GOP District Attorney Lohra Miller trails her Democratic challenger, Sim Gill, and Democratic Sheriff Jim Winder leads his Republican opponent, Beau Babka.
Thirty-seven Senate seats are up for election, 19 held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. Fourteen of these seats are open — six Democratic and eight Republican — meaning there is no incumbent competing in the election.
Current breakdown: 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
All 435 House seats are at stake. A party must win 218 seats to get a majority.
Current breakdown: 255 Democrats, 178 Republicans and two vacancies.