Bernie Sanders is front-runner in Utah primary race, say polls, predictions

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on March 18, 2016, where some 14,000 Utahns showed up to cheer him on heading into the last presidential primary race.

Late polls and predictions show that Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, is the front-runner in Utah heading into the Super Tuesday primary next week.

In fact, the political website FiveThirtyEight.com now gives Sanders an 87% chance of winning in Utah’s Democratic primary on Tuesday.

And a poll released Friday by the Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics shows Sanders leading with 28%, while three other candidates are in a near tie for second place.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had 19%; Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., received 18%; and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had 15%.

[Read more: Bernie Sanders plans a Utah visit before Tuesday’s vote]

Trailing behind the leaders, former Vice President Joe Biden had 6%, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had 4%, 8% were undecided and 1% favored other candidates.

The poll was conducted by Scott Rasmussen on Feb. 22-26 of 298 likely Democratic voters and has margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.

All four of the top-tier candidates are in position to possibly win some of the 29 delegates that Utah voters will award Tuesday. Complicated rules award at least one delegate to anyone who wins 15% of the vote.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant explains that selection of three of those delegates is based on statewide election totals, and the other 26 delegates are chosen by totals in individual congressional districts.

“You have to win at least 15% of the vote to win a delegate,” he said. “Then those top candidates split delegates according to the proportion of the vote they receive” in congressional districts and the state.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said the latest poll shows continued popularity and strength by Sanders, but not as much as four years ago, when he won 77% of the caucus vote against Hillary Clinton.

“He’s not doing as well he did in 2016 relative to Hillary Clinton,” Karopowitz said. “He may win, but he’s not going to win in quite the same way he did the last time. I think that says more about the state of the field this time. Hilary Clinton was not popular in Utah.”

Why is Sanders ahead?

“There is a core group of voters who seem very committed to him, and many of them voted for him the last time around as well,” Karpowitz said. “But the rest of the field is very fractured.”

He said those Democrats who worry that Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is too far to the left to defeat President Donald Trump are failing to coalesce around any of the other candidates.

“If you put [moderates] Bloomberg and Buttigieg together, just those two would beat Sanders,” he said. “The field has so many alternatives that Democrats are having trouble coordinating on any one [candidate]. So no one has a majority of support in the state of Utah.”

Karpowitz also cautions that polling for a primary is difficult in Utah.

“One, things are changing constantly,” he said. “If Joe Biden does really well on Saturday and wins South Carolina in a convincing way, that might change what happens on Tuesday in Utah.” But because Utah is voting primarily by mail, voters have been casting ballots for weeks — so late-breaking developments may not change many votes.

Also, Democrats in Utah allow non-Democrats to vote in their primary. So many unaffiliated voters are participating, and perhaps some Republicans — which may skew expected results. Merchant, the party chairman, said Democrats allow that to give all Utahns a voice in the process, and persuade others to look closely at Democrats and start supporting them.

“Because there’s a set of Republicans who are not particularly pleased with Donald Trump, are they actually going to take the step of voting in the Democratic primary?" Karpowitz said. “All of those things add some uncertainty to these sorts of predictions.”

Many of the candidates are making last-minute pushes for votes in Utah, either personally or with surrogates.

Sanders is scheduled to appear at a noon rally on Monday at the Utah State Fairpark. Four years ago, he attracted more than 14,000 people to a similar rally at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

Sanders’ wife, Jean, also was campaigning in Utah on Friday, and on Saturday will appear at an ice cream social, where members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will talk about how Sanders aligns with their beliefs. That 11 a.m. event is at the Whitmore Library, 2197 Fort Union Blvd., Cottonwood Heights.

Bloomberg’s longtime partner, Diana Taylor, will attend a Utah rally for him on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Bloomberg’s field office at 201 E. 12300 South in Draper, appearing with Utah Rep. Ben McAdams.

Bloomberg has spent more than $3 million on ads in Utah and visited the state twice in recent weeks. That helped him double the support that he had in an early January poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Warren’s campaign co-chairwoman, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is scheduled to be at a Salt Lake City meet-and-greet Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at The Pie Pizzeria, 1320 E. 200 South, and a 6 p.m. public lands event at the Impact Hub, 150 S. State St. On Sunday, she will appear at a 12:45 p.m. canvass kickoff in Ogden at 1465 Mitchell Drive.

Warren also visited Utah personally earlier in the cycle. Buttigieg attracted a standing room-only crowd of 4,500 in a concert hall rally in Salt Lake City on Presidents Day. He has also been endorsed by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. His campaign scheduled more than 70 get-out-the-vote events in Utah before the Tuesday primary.

Biden came to Utah for a fundraiser early in the cycle that was not open to the public. His wife, former second lady Jill Biden, attended another fundraiser in early January in Salt Lake City.