Joe Biden’s Utah comeback may be bigger story than Bernie Sanders’ primary win

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus on Dec. 13, 2018.

While Bernie Sanders won the Utah Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, a bigger story may be the Lazarus-like comeback from the dead here of former Vice President Joe Biden — and the moderate wing of the party flexing some heretofore dormant muscle.

“The big story is that the moderate wing of the party that supports people like Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden really turned out for this election relative to 2016,” said David Magleby, emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University. “Their candidates did much better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That is the bigger story than [that] Sanders won a plurality.”

Four years ago, Sanders received about 61,000 votes in Utah Democratic caucuses — and did not receive much more than that Tuesday. Clinton four years ago received about 15,700 votes. “Both Biden and Bloomberg received twice that number this year” as counting continues, Magleby said. “Together, they received four times what Hillary Clinton did.”

He adds, “The bottom line is Sanders didn’t grow his base of support. It’s about constant.” But the moderates in the party were suddenly energized and cast about as many votes total as Sanders received.

Updated vote totals released Wednesday afternoon didn’t change the standings much. Sanders remained at 34.6%, followed by Biden with 17.4%, Bloomberg with 16.75% and progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 15.5%.

Those four candidates are all in position to win at least some of Utah’s 29 pledged delegates, as long as their final vote percentage remains above 15% by party rules.

Last week, few gave Biden any prayer of winning delegates in Utah — let alone finishing second here. That all changed after an overwhelming weekend win in the South Carolina primary. Then fellow moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden to coalesce moderate opposition to liberal Sanders.

It had an effect on those who voted late in Utah. But Utah votes primarily by mail, so some people cast ballots up to three weeks before all that happened.

Magleby notes that pre-election polls showed Biden with only 9% support. The first returns on Tuesday — from those who voted early in the process — gave him just over 11% and put him in fifth place. But when Election Day ballot counts started coming in, Biden’s vote total kept climbing, until he’d passed the critical 15% threshold and landed in second place with 17.2%.

“I think what happened to Biden in Utah is what happened to Biden across the country” as he came from far behind to win at least nine of the 14 states with primaries on Super Tuesday, Magleby said.

He said many Utah moderates looking at polls here who voted early likely figured that a vote for Biden would be a wasted vote, and would result in no delegates. So many of them likely voted for Bloomberg instead.

After the late coalescing of moderates nationally around Biden, “the late voters here decided to go with Biden,” Magleby said.

So Biden now will win delegates in Utah, although somewhat complicated formulas still make it difficult to predict how many.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant gave some rough estimates early Wednesday for some of them.

Ten of the state’s 29 delegates will be apportioned according to statewide vote totals. Merchant said current numbers would give four or five to Sanders, two each to Biden and Bloomberg, and one or two to Warren. “The numbers are so close, it’s hard to tell,” he said.

The other 19 delegates are split among the state’s four congressional districts, according to how many Democrats live in each. Merchant said he does not yet have a breakdown of voting by district — but anyone with 15% or more in each district would win a delegate.

Because Warren is so close to the 15% threshold, Merchant said the party may wait a few days for late-arriving by-mail ballots to be counted before it is comfortable in apportioning pledged delegates. It may make a final adjustment after the final canvass in two weeks.

The state also has six unpledged “superdelegates,” local party leaders who will be able to vote in a second round of voting at the national convention if no one secures the nomination in the first round. Among them is Rep. Ben McAdams, who has endorsed Bloomberg.

Bloomberg suspended his campaign Wednesday and endorsed Biden. He will be able to do with his delegates as he pleases, including releasing them to vote for Biden.

“I think obviously yesterday was exciting for Joe Biden,” Merchant said on Wednesday. “I think that this is a sign that the party is starting to consolidate and unify.”

While a tough battle still looms for the now-narrowed field of candidates, Merchant said local Democrats are excited about the party’s chances in November — whoever the final nominee may be.

“What it really shows is that the Democratic Party is very vibrant, very excited and very energetic about our chances in November,” he said.

On the down side for Utah Democrats, twice as many voters cast ballots in the Republican primary as in the Democratic primary even though the GOP really didn’t have a contest with President Donald Trump on the ballot. Trump won 88% of the Republican vote in Utah.

The election results will be released daily at 3 p.m through March 16, followed by the official canvass on March 17.