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Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

What Utah's History Tells Us About Why Its Democrats Are So Progressive

Photo of people watching election results on a TV
Brian Albers
Utahns gather in the Hinckley Institute of Politics on University of Utah’s Salt Lake City campus to watch election results as 13 states count votes in a presidential primary election Tuesday, March 3, 2020.";

In politics, Utah leans heavily Republican. But it’s Democrats that are in the spotlight this Super Tuesday. To get more historical context on today’s primary, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with BYU Emeritus Professor of Political Science David Magleby.

Caroline Ballard: Have Utah’s democratic voters bucked national voting trends in the past and is there a possibility for that this primary?

David Magleby: Well, they have in part. In 1968, the party was badly divided. It was not a primary. It was a caucus state. And most of the Utah delegation went to Chicago, supporting Hubert Humphrey. I was actually there as a high school senior. In 1972, we did not buck national trends. We went with (George) McGovern. 

By and large, the Utah Democratic Party since 1972 has been a liberal Democratic Party in terms of presidential selection. And that's because I think the activists in the Democratic Party see the presidential selection process as their chance to have a voice in politics. And so it's not surprising that Bernie Sanders got 79% of the vote in 2016 in Utah. 

In tonight's voting, it'll be interesting to see if he comes close to half of that, because it's far more competitive. I think he's likely to win, but will he exceed 35% of the vote? We don't know. We'll be watching for that.

CB: When was the last time that Utah went for a Democratic president in the general election?

DM: It's been a long time: 1964. Many of your listeners may think that it was not even in their lifetime. And for some of them, it wasn't. That was an unusual year because Lyndon Johnson defeated a senator from a neighboring state, Barry Goldwater from Arizona. 

And not only did Johnson win big in Utah, a Democrat winning big in Utah, but the ticket did very well. Frank Moss was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, defeated BYU University president Ernest Wilkinson, also by a wide margin in 1964. So the state really changed between 1964 and 1968, moving from a competitive state where Democrats could win, to a mostly Republican state.

CB: What are some things that we should watch for as we see some numbers start to come in? And how many voters actually came out to the polls today in Utah?

DM: Well, that's going to be the key question I'm going to watch. In 2016, about 77,000 Utah Democrats participated. And with the advertising by Mike Bloomberg and the heavy competition that Sanders has brought to the state, we'll see if that boosts turnout to something closer to 100,000. And that would be a sign that more Utah voters are taking interest. If the numbers are about the same as they were in 2016, I think it means that there isn't as much excitement as there seems to have been in some of the other early states.

CB: Do you have any predictions for how tonight's vote might turn out in Utah?

DM: Well, I'm relying only on the polls that I've seen and there have been very few of them in Utah compared to some other states. They strongly suggest that the enthusiasm that has been evident on the Sanders side in Utah will mean that he is likely to prevail. But there's a lot of enthusiasm for Sen. Elizabeth Warren as well. And Sanders and Warren are both in the progressive lane, as they call it, of American politics right now. What I think is going to be very, very interesting is how will Bloomberg do? Does Bloomberg have, within Utah, more cachet than than other Democrats might because he has been a Republican, because he's a manager and because he spent a lot of money here? He spent even more money in Colorado. So I'll be watching Utah and Colorado tonight, as my barometers for whether Bloomberg's heavy expenditures are going to yield much in terms of return.

CB: Professor David Magleby, thank you so much.

DM: You're welcome. It's been fun talking to you.

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

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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