Thanks to strong support from younger voters, 78-year-old Bernie Sanders is the front-runner for Utah’s Democratic presidential primary on March 3 — doubling the percentage of support from his nearest rival in a huge field. But one of every five likely voters is still undecided.
Sanders, a liberal Vermont senator, attracts support from 26.5% of Utahns who say they’ll vote in the March 3 Democratic primary, according to a Salt Lake Tribune survey conducted by Suffolk University. Fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator, is No. 2 with 14.4%.
Trailing them in the top tier of candidates are two moderates: former Vice President Joe Biden with 12.1% and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with 9.9%. The poll of 132 likely Democratic primary voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 8.5 percentage points.
David Magleby, emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University, says Sanders leads here because of big support from young Democrats and from the local party’s left-wing leaning — plus his head start from 2016, when he won the Utah Democratic caucuses with an overwhelming 77% of the vote over Hillary Clinton.
“He starts with a foundation of individuals who previously supported him in the presidential contest," Magleby said, “and those folks are likely to return and participate in 2020.”
In 2016, Sanders surprised himself and pundits by drawing 14,000 mostly young people to a rally at This Is the Place Heritage Park — and returned four days later for a second sellout event at West High School to accommodate hundreds who were turned away from the first.
“It looks like I got some bad information,” Sanders said, looking over the first vast crowd. “Somebody told me Utah was a Republican state.” He has yet to visit the state this year.
Sanders generates most of his Utah support — now and in 2016 — from younger voters.
In the new poll, Sanders won 49% of the support from likely Democratic voters ages 18-34 and 40% of those ages 35-44 — double to tripling what other candidates received from those age groups. Older age groups are far more evenly split. Warren led with those ages 45-54, Bloomberg led among those 55-64 and Biden led among those 65 and older.
For his academic research, Magleby interviewed some of Sanders’ 2016 managers for media and fundraising about why the senior citizen is so popular with younger voters.
“Their answer is: He’s seen by young people as authentic,” Magleby said. “Sure, he’s older. Sure his hair is a little frizzy…. But what those young people like in Sanders is that he’s the real Bernie. He’s authentic.”
Mike Oberbrockling, 35, of Layton, is one of the people polled who plans to vote for Sanders.
“After Bernie wins, he is going to do the things he says he is going to do,” Oberbrockling said. “He seems to be pretty upfront with everything. You watch a lot of interviews with most politicians, and they give long, drawn-out answers that aren’t clear. Bernie doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Magleby said many younger voters also seem to see Sanders as a father figure, or a grandfather figure, and Oberbrockling agrees.
“Some people call him America’s dad,” Oberbrockling said. “And just like any dad, he wants what’s best for everybody. And the cool thing about Bernie Sanders is it doesn’t matter if you support him or not — he still wants those better things in place for you,” such as Medicare for all.
Magleby said younger voters are also part of an enthusiastic liberal wave that often appears in Democratic presidential campaigns. In contrast, he said, older voters tend to be more centrist and more interested in experience. That is shown by Gaye Anthony, 66, of Taylorsville, one of the Biden supporters among poll respondents.
“At this point in our democracy with what’s going on [with President Donald Trump],” she said, “we need [Biden’s] experience and temperament to help bring our country back to an order that is more stable and more friendly, and more in keeping with our traditions and our expectations.”
Magleby said the poll also shows the strength of the liberal wing in the Utah Democratic Party — in a state controlled by Republicans. He notes that progressives Sanders and Warren are capturing 40% of the vote, while centrist moderates trail well behind.
“This is not uncommon in one-party states,” he said, “where the out party is more interested in making a statement than winning an election.”
Magleby added it reinforces a perception that the Utah Democratic Party is well left of the Utah mainstream, and “that isn’t going to help Democrats win any office in the state of Utah, where party labels are on the ballot.”
Former political reporter Rod Decker in his recent book on Utah politics, “The Elephant in the Room,” noted that if it weren’t for Latter-day Saints, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, the Beehive State would have delivered Hillary Clinton one of her largest victories in the past election.
Magleby did note that moderate Bloomberg seems to be surging amid big spending out of his own pocket here on advertising. The Hill website reported that Bloomberg has spent $147 million on ads, mostly in states with primaries on Super Tuesday, including more than seven figures in Utah.
In a recent visit to Utah, Bloomberg said he can attract unaffiliated voters and many Republicans upset with Trump to become the first Democrat to carry the Beehive State since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. One event for him was hosted by a fellow Democratic moderate, Rep. Ben McAdams, who won his seat by fewer than 700 votes and has been careful also to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans.
Warren visited Utah last April and announced this week that she hired senior staff here to oversee a grassroots campaign.
Mary Blair, 44, of South Ogden, is one of those polled who is excited about Warren’s anti-corruption message. “I like that she’s not taking any type of PAC money ... because I believe that big business money has to come out of politics. So I’m all in on Elizabeth Warren and have been for a long time.”
Other candidates in the poll who received some support include: entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 4.6% each; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 3%; and billionaire Tom Steyer and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 0.8% each.
The telephone poll of 500 adults, including 132 likely Democratic voters, was conducted between Jan. 18 and 22. The Democratic primary is open both to registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters (if they take action to request a ballot).