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How Being A Super Tuesday State Is Changing Utah's Primary Elections

Photo of a polling place at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City
Sonja Hutson

Tuesday was the first time Utah participated in Super Tuesday. To get a better picture of everything in play in the primary, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: What does it mean for Utah to be voting on Super Tuesday for the first time? 

Matthew Burbank: What mostly this means is that the state has attracted a little more attention than it traditionally has. Usually in the past, Utah has been a kind of late state. So we have often been in late March or sometimes in April. This time around, we are among the first states that are voting. Super Tuesday this year is a large group of states. Utah's one of 14 states that’s voting, and that’s a very large number of delegates that are being decided today. 

CB: What do you think of that uncertainty about who the candidate is going to be? What has that done to the process of a primary here in Utah? 

MB: On the Republican side, there's a contested election but not a lot interesting going on since there's an incumbent president. 

CB: Sure. 

MB: On the Democratic side, of course, we have this long list of candidates — which over the weekend got a little bit shorter. And so there's a lot of uncertainty around that in terms of the fact that Utah's a state that has mail-in balloting, and so many people had already mailed in their votes.

But in general, what I think that has done is it's really increased attention on the Democratic side. Previously, what you saw with the state's caucus in 2016, is that almost all of the interest was really with Sen. Bernie Sanders. And Bernie Sanders supporters really turned out for the caucus. This time around, I think what you see is more people who are voting on the Democratic side, and a broader range of candidates that they were interested in. 

CB: There is still a lot of love for Bernie Sanders here in Utah, according to polls. What do we take away from that? 

MB: I think what we saw is that Sanders did very good job of organizing people in 2016. He got a lot of people excited. And one of the things that was advantageous for him is that he announced very early he was going to run for president on the Democratic side again, and that meant that many of his supporters simply said, "Great, I'm going to support him again."

They supported him before. They were disappointed he lost to Hillary Clinton, and so for many of them, this was more a matter of not having to look around to decide between candidates because they liked the person they'd supported before. And that's always a big advantage for a campaign.

CB: On the moderate end of the party, we are seeing candidates dropping out and starting to line up behind Joe Biden. How do you think that's going to impact Super Tuesday today?

MB: This looks like the Democrats have attempted to kind of get behind one moderate candidate, one alternative to Bernie Sanders. And so what we've seen is with Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropping out and with Pete Buttigieg dropping out and with Tom Steyer dropping out, really what that's done is kind of made Joe Biden be the primary candidate who is the kind of more moderate alternative.

The fact that this occurred before Super Tuesday is really a bit of a surprise, because ordinarily what we would expect to see is all of those candidates who again have been campaigning literally up through the weekend. Pete Buttigieg was here not very long ago, right. Amy Klobuchar was here yesterday. And essentially then, you know, turning around saying, "OK, now I'm out."

I think what that that did prior to Super Tuesday is introduce, oddly enough, a bit more uncertainty because I think what we expected to see was that Super Tuesday would kind of be the big deciding point. But clearly the Biden people are hoping what this is going to do is lead to more votes for Biden, more delegates for Biden, and make him more of a competitor to Bernie Sanders in terms of that delegate count. 

CB: Has anything about the election season, running up to Super Tuesday, surprised you here in Utah?

MB: A lot of things surprised me. The number of Democratic candidates, the kind of way they've campaigned. In some ways, I would have anticipated a candidate like Joe Biden would at least have spent a little bit of time in Utah, but we have seen visits from a number of others. Again, Bernie Sanders was just here. Amy Klobuchar was just here. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been in the state. Michael Bloomberg has been in the state. So we've seen a fair number of candidates show up and campaign here.

Utah's one of the smaller number of delegate counts, right? Usually what we see with that is that a couple of candidates will kind of target a state, and say, I really need to win there. That that would help me if I could do that. So again, we saw Elizabeth Warren showing up here early, and putting some time and effort into the state and she's had supporters here. So I think she's hoping to do well in a state like Utah. Again, to kind of counter the fact that Bernie Sanders is probably going to do well in a place like California, and perhaps do well in place like Texas.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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