When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Utah during his 2016 presidential campaign, he drew a crowd of thousands.
“You want a radical idea?” Sanders asked the cheering group. “We’re going to invest in education and jobs for our young people, not jails and incarceration.”
His support after that campaign stop in March 2016 carried through to the ballots. Sanders won 77% of the vote at the Democratic caucuses against his rival Hillary Clinton, who went on to clinch the national Democratic presidential nomination.
Now, four years later, Sanders is polling high again as he attempts to win the 2020 nomination.
The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University asked this question in a poll conducted Jan. 18 - 22, and The Tribune shared the following results after 132 Utah Democratic presidential primary voters participated. The margin of error is 8.5 percentage points.
In a January survey from the Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University, Sanders was the favorite, with nearly 27% of respondents supporting him in a much larger field than 2016. Still, his support was nearly double the runner-up, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Utah politics statewide are almost completely controlled by Republicans. The party has a supermajority in the state Senate and House of Representatives, and controls the Governor’s office. Utah’s Congressional delegation is Republican, save for moderate Democrat Rep. Ben McAdams, who won his seat by a slim margin in 2018.
What makes Democrats in such a conservative state throw their support behind such a liberal candidate like Sanders?
“That Republican domination, I think, has led a lot of Democrats to feel unheard,” said Utah Democratic Party Chair Jeff Merchant. “Bernie Sanders represents a part of our party that sees the vision of what this country can be … I think that he inspires a lot of people.”
At a recent Tuesday night phone bank in a Salt Lake City library, volunteers for Sanders’ campaign were working to ensure he keepsthat strong support heading into Super Tuesday.
“I have a boatload of Bernie pins and they are free for showing up tonight,” said volunteer phone bank organizer Phelan Acheson. “So take a couple.”
Acheson is reallypassionate about Sanders’ campaign. When asked why he supported Sanders, Acheson said, “I don't know if I can fit that into a single interview.”
One of Acheson’s big issues is healthcare. He said his grandfather had to choose between his heart medication and his stroke medication because they were too expensive. His grandfather chose the heart medication, he said, and died of a stroke.
“If we had had the comprehensive, single payer Medicare for all as Sanders proposes it about six years ago,” he said, “my grandfather would probably be alive today.”
But Acheson wasn’t always such a big supporter. In 2016, he was going to college in Colorado and voted for Clinton. It was moving to Utah in April that pushed his political beliefs further to the left.
“I find that living in a state that is more conservative, is more red, and therefore has some policy that's maybe at odds with what I believe in, has actually helped strengthen my core beliefs,” Acheson said.
It isn’t just being the political minority that makes Utah Democrats favor Sanders, according to University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank. Utah Democrats can afford to vote their conscience, he argued, because they know the state as a whole will always go red.
“If this were, for example, a governor's race and it was very close and it looks like Democrats could win, then it might make some sense for Democrats to change their message a bit to perhaps moderate that position,” Burbank said.
But, since that rarely happens, “it's very easy to fall into the position of, in essence, saying, ‘What I want is to express my view, and I have a fairly strong view,’ and not worrying about … how that works politically,” Burbank added.
Back at the phone bank, 25-year-old Salt Lake City native Gabriella Huggins was calling local Sanders supporters to invite them to upcoming volunteer events.
She voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic caucuses and then cast a ballot for a third party candidate in November. She said living in such a conservative state allowed her to cast that ideological vote.
“If I vote for a third party, it doesn't really matter, because we're going red anyway,” Huggins said.
Huggins supports Sanders because she said he’s the only candidate that she feels aligns fully with her political ideology.
“This is the first candidate in my lifetime that I felt genuinely excited to support that didn't feel like I had to compromise on any of my belief systems to be able to support this person,” Huggins said.
Sanders’ campaign is hoping that continued support from Utahns like Huggins will help him win the state’s Democratic primary during this year’s Super Tuesday.
“I think it's important for us to walk off of March 3 … and have a series of states that we just won the popular vote in,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “I do feel like Utah is one that we have a really good chance to do that. And we are investing accordingly.”
That investment includes spending thousands of dollars on salaries for four staffers in the state and for a campaign office in Salt Lake City that opened Tuesday.
The campaign is also spending $5.5 million on advertising in Super Tuesday states.
But, unlike some of his Democratic rivals, Sanders has not yet made a stop in Utah, and his campaign says his travel schedule is still up in the air.