David Magleby: Interpreting the Utah results from Super Tuesday

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Bernie Sanders supporters cheer as the watch the returns come in at an election watch party at the Teamsters & Chauffeurs Union in West Valley on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

A distinctive element of democracy in the United States is that voters play a key role in deciding who runs under party labels in general elections. Translating the vote from a caucus or primary to the share of delegates candidates receive has been the subject of contention in both parties.

Democrats apportion delegates based on the popular vote, but with a requirement that a candidate needs to cross a 15% threshold, either at the statewide or congressional district levels, to get any delegates. Republicans have a wider range of rules.

Last Tuesday, much was made of how many states Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders each won. By this metric Biden “won” 10 states and Sanders four. But this does not account for the margin of victory for each candidate, nor does it summarize who got the most delegates.

In Virginia, for example, Biden got 53 percent of the vote compared to Sanders at 23%, with the remainder going to the other candidates. As of Friday, this resulted in Biden getting 66 delegates compared to Sanders at 31 and Elizabeth Warren with two. In Vermont, Sanders’ home state, the results were 51% for Sanders and 22% for Biden, with Sanders getting 11 delegates and Biden five. These numbers may change as all ballots are counted and delegates allocated in congressional districts.

In Utah, as of Friday, Sanders had 35% of the vote, just exceeding the combined share of the vote that went to Michael Bloomberg and Biden. Unlike Biden in Virginia or Sanders in Vermont, no candidate got a majority of the vote. Sanders fell well below the large 2016 majority when he received 79% of the vote. In 2016, Sanders got 27 of Utah’s 33 pledged delegates. In 2020 the final allocation is days away, but Sanders likely will get at least seven delegates to Biden’s three. Bloomberg and Warren are likely to get delegates from Utah once the congressional district vote is reported.

Sanders’ plurality victory in Colorado is very similar to Utah. There he got 36% of the vote, Biden 24%, Bloomberg 21% and Warren 17%.

While Sanders has been declared the winner of the Utah primary in 2020, a case can be made that the winner is indeterminate. The moderate voters who supported Bloomberg and Biden can claim they matched Sanders in turnout. In response, Democratic liberals or progressives in Utah could say their wing of the party really won, because when Elizabeth Warren’s vote share is combined with Sanders, the total is half of all Utah voters. Warren withdrew from the race on Thursday but, unlike the moderates, has not endorsed Sanders or any other candidate.

The 2020 Utah Democratic presidential primary saw a substantial rise in turnout. When all votes are tallied, the total vote cast in 2020 will nearly double the vote cast in 2016. This surge is not explained by an increase in Sanders support; rather, the increase comes largely from the other Democratic candidates in 2020 having many more voters than Hillary Clinton did. The Sanders campaign claims to be activating new voters, but there is no evidence that his base of support in Utah grew since 2016.

One final takeaway from Tuesday. Moving to early voting and vote-by-mail is a mistake in fast-moving primary elections. Political scientists have long worried that early voting denies voters the chance to factor late breaking news into their voting calculus. Late breaking news likely factored into the Utah 2020 primary vote.

Voters who had voted days or weeks before Tuesday cast ballots for candidates who had dropped out of the race, meaning they had no say in who got delegates in Utah. More than 26,000 votes were cast for candidates who dropped out of the race before Utah stopped taking ballots on Tuesday. Exit polls in other states showed that late deciders in the primary went heavily to Joe Biden. Biden’s victory in South Carolina only three days before voting closed in Utah appears to have boosted the former vice president and led to Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropping out. But Utah voters who cast their ballots before Sunday did not have this information.

(Kylea Knecht | Courtesy of BYU) David Magleby is a professor of political science, emeritus, and former dean of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University.

David Magleby, Provo, is a distinguished professor of political science, emeritus, at Brigham Young University and formerly the dean of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences.