Despite late efforts by moderates to combine forces against him, liberal Vermont senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders won Tuesday’s Utah’s Democratic presidential primary.
As early results showed Sanders with a lead of 34.6% of the vote after polls closed, a group of more than a dozen supporters at an election watch party at the Teamsters & Chauffeurs Union in West Valley City erupted in cheers.
“Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” they chanted.
The Associated Press called the race for Sanders in Utah at 8:30 p.m.
Behind him were former Vice President Joe Biden with 17.2%, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who spent nearly $3 million on ads in Utah, with 16.9%; and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 15.4%. Candidates that get at least 15% are eligible for delegates, though it is unclear with these early results how Utah’s 29 delegates will be awarded.
Further back were now-withdrawn candidate Pete Buttigieg with 10%, also-just-withdrawn candidates Amy Klobuchar with 4% and Tom Steyer with 0.4%. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard had 0.8%.
Because Utah votes primarily by mail, residents have been casting votes for weeks, so many voted before Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out on the eve of the Super Tuesday primary and endorsed Biden. Those moderates have joined forces in an effort to stop Sanders, whom they see as too liberal to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
Chris Karopowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Campaigns at Brigham Young University, said Tuesday’s primary shows there’s a substantial number of people who are “feeling the Bern here in Utah.”
But the outcome also reflects a broader split within the Democratic Party, which has struggled in recent weeks to coalesce around a single candidate.
“I think we’re seeing in Utah what we see in the rest of the country on the Democratic side, which is there’s a divide in the Democratic Party between the progressive wing and more moderate candidates," he said. “In Utah, we see that divide in exactly the same way."
It was a good night overall for Biden, who won a majority of the 14 states participating in Super Tuesday. Utah was one of Biden’s worst showings; he squeaked into third place as the vote count ticked up later in the night.
Biden supporter Scott Howell conceded that, “Yeah, it’s disappointing, of course it is.”
But he said it was “great” that the candidate finished above the threshold to qualify for delegates.
Sanders maintained his popularity Tuesday among Utah Democrats, who gave him 77% of the vote in caucuses four years ago against Hillary Clinton and came out in the thousands to a rally on Monday at the Utah State Fairpark.
“Our administration will stand up to the corporate elites,” he told those at the Monday rally. “We’re going to stand up to Wall Street. We’re going to stand up to the corruption of the drug companies. We’re going to stand up to the insurance companies. We’re going to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. We’re going to stand up to the military industrial complex. We’re going to stand up to the prison industrial complex.”
Health care concerns
Democrats interviewed Tuesday after they voted at Hunter Library in West Valley City believed that any of the candidates, including Sanders, could beat Trump — and explained their votes.
“I voted for Bernie because I believe health care is a human right. I want my daughter to have a world she can thrive in. Right now she doesn’t have that. I don’t have that,” said Jessie Burningham. “Health care is hard. I can’t miss a day of work, or I’m stuck. He’s really the only person who speaks to what I need in my life.”
When Priscilla Delao Campos was asked why she voted for Sanders, she pointed to her children. “We are very much wanting health care coverage,” she said, noting that Sanders is pushing Medicare for All. “I have five children, so it’s hard when we don’t have insurance. It’s a lot of out of pocket money.”
Victor Schmidt said he voted for Sanders because he will help the middle class. “I like his tax plans and his stands on minimum wage and education,” he said. “He’s honest. He’s had the same positions for years and years. He doesn’t change too much.”
Others said they liked Biden or Bloomberg.
“I voted for Biden because he is a moderate. I’m tired of the extremes. I like the experience he has,” said Monica Gomez.
Bridgett Blodgett also voted for Biden, saying, “He seems more level-headed than a lot of the other candidates. He has shown that when he was working with [President Barack] Obama that he has grace under pressure. I like that. He gives me confidence.”
Camie Montague said she voted for Bloomberg because he “did a good job when he was in New York. I just like the things he has to say and I like that he’s truthful.”
Utah’s primary system
The Utah Democratic primary selects 29 pledged delegates — three at-large selected statewide, and the rest divided among its congressional districts. To win a delegate, candidates must win at least 15% of the vote in a congressional district or statewide. They are divided proportionately to the votes received.
Even candidates who withdrew late can still win delegates, said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant. Such candidates could then choose what to do with them, such as release them to other candidates.
Merchant said it may be several days before the party apportions candidates in Utah, because it wants to wait for late-arriving by-mail ballots.
Utah Republicans also voted in a presidential primary on Tuesday, though it was not competitive.
Early results showed Trump leading with 88.5% of the vote, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who campaigned in Utah two weeks ago, with 6.3%. Several other minor candidates split the rest.
The president had far more votes in this red state than all of the Democrats combined in early results — more than 260,000.
“Tonight proved that Utahns are firmly united behind President Trump,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager in a statement. "No matter which socialist Democrat ultimately makes it on the ballot in November, Utahns will choose to continue the success they’ve experienced under President Trump’s ‘Promises Made. Promises Kept’ agenda and reelect him to four more years.”
Four years ago, Trump lost the Utah GOP caucus to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and went on to win Utah with less than a majority of votes, with Clinton finishing second and independent Evan McMullin in third.
This year, Utah set a record for ballots cast in a presidential primary. The number cast statewide as of the early evening was 479,771 — easily passing the earlier record of 428,459 set in 2008, the last time Utah had a stand-alone presidential primary, according to Justin Lee, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. That year was the last time Utahns voted on Super Tuesday.
The state also set a record by percentage Tuesday, with 32.5% of registered voters this year, edging just ahead of 2008. And that would still rise as final by-mail ballots arrive over coming days, Lee said.
For decades, Utah rarely saw presidential candidates because its primaries or caucuses were late in the process — often after nominees were determined by other states.
But the Beehive State enjoyed increased attention this year after the Legislature moved this year’s primary up to Super Tuesday, when 14 states, American Samoa and Democrats abroad choose about a third of Democratic delegates.
In modern times, Utah has served as more of an ATM for candidates than a campaign destination. That collection of cash continues even as multiple candidates have come in for public appearances and rallies.
Sanders has so far raked in the largest stack of contributions, pulling $728,000 from Utahns so far this cycle and beating Trump, who has raised $463,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Warren pulled in nearly $367,000 from Utahns, followed by Buttigieg at $282,766 and Biden at $267,331.
In a switch from previous years, candidates are actually spending about as much money in the state as they raised — mainly fueled by Bloomberg, who isn’t taking donations and is spending millions of his own multibillion-dollar fortune to blanket the airwaves nationwide.