SALT LAKE CITY — A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is poised to win Utah’s Democratic primary election Tuesday, but the more than $3 million spent in the state by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has helped propel him to second place.

More than a quarter of likely Democratic voters in Utah’s first Super Tuesday election — 28% — said they’re casting their ballots for Sanders, followed by 19% for Bloomberg.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has the support of 18% of Utah Democratic primary voters, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 15%.

Michelle Budge

The poll was conducted for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen Feb. 22-26 of 298 likely Democratic voters in Utah’s Super Tuesday presidential primary and has margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.

Trailing behind is former Vice President Joe Biden, with just 6% of the state’s Democratic primary voters saying he’s their pick, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is the choice of only 4%. Eight percent weren’t sure who they’re voting for, and 1% said it was another candidate.

Democratic primaries are open to all voters in Utah, and 66% of those polled were Democrats, 27% unaffiliated or other parties and 6% were Republicans,

“It’s a lot different than it was four years ago in Utah,” Rasmussen said.

In 2016, Sanders trounced the Democrats’ eventual nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with nearly 80% of the vote in a presidential preference caucus vote held weeks after that year’s Super Tuesday election in early March.

For the first time, Utahns are voting on Super Tuesday, the day when the most states hold presidential primaries or caucuses. More than a third of the nation’s Democratic delegates — including 29 in Utah — are up for grabs in 14 states and American Samoa in the first presidential contests following Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“Things are so fundamentally different,” Rasmussen said. “In Utah, Bernie Sanders is in the lead. He’s in the lead nationally. But he’s not a dominant front-runner. ... It’s a pretty wide-open race behind Bernie Sanders at the moment.”

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The poll shows three Democratic presidential candidates — Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Warren — are “running neck and neck for second place” in Utah, the New York City-based pollster said. “I think that everybody wants to put a fine definition on what voters in the Democratic primary are saying and it’s a bit of a muddle.”

With none of the more moderate candidates emerging as the clear alternative to Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, Rasmussen said what the poll “tells the rest of the country about Utah voters is that Utah Democrats aren’t a whole lot different than Democrats around the country.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander speaks during the “Come Together and Fight Back” tour at the Rail Event Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 21, 2017. | Deseret News

The results do suggest that candidates who’ve spent time and money in the state are faring better in Utah.

Sanders has an office and staff in Utah and is running TV commercials. He’s holding a rally Monday at noon at the Utah State Fairpark. His wife, Jane, will be in the state Friday and Saturday for several events, including a fireside with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Whitmore Library Saturday morning.

Buttigieg attracted an estimated 4,500 people to an evening rally at The Union in Salt Lake City on President’s Day and also has paid staff in the state. Warren also has TV commercials airing in Utah and had to turn away a crowd at an April 2019 rally downtown.

Other than a Park City fundraiser closed to the public, Biden hasn’t campaigned in Utah. Nor has Klobuchar, despite her campaign’s strategy to focus on smaller states that promised a $4.2 million TV and digital ad buy in Utah and others voting on Super Tuesday.

But it’s Bloomberg who has invested the most by far in Utah, just as he has done nationwide by spending some $400 million on a campaign focused on Super Tuesday states. He’s made two campaign stops in in the state and has campaign offices in Salt Lake City and Draper, with 20 people on the payroll.

On top of that, Bloomberg is also spending an unprecedented $3 million on advertising in Utah, mostly on TV commercials that have been airing since he got in the race last November but also with campaign mailings targeting unaffiliated voters.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg campaigns at The Union Event Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Boyd Matheson, Deseret News opinion editor, said the poll “shows that a big advertising spend can drive a candidate to the top of a race. Mayor Bloomberg has spent $3 million in an incredibly short amount of time and, despite two subpar debate performances and relentless national scrutiny that followed, is still in second place with nearly 20%.”

But Matheson said the poll also makes it clear “that a grassroots organization still beats salaried staff and paid advertising in a primary battle. Sanders built a passionate base of supporters starting here in 2016 who feel they are part of a movement,” although he hasn’t “increased acceptance with more moderate voters.”

Sanders’ campaign declined to comment on the poll.

Bloomberg’s Utah state director, Lauren Littlefield, said in a statement that the “poll demonstrates that Utahns like Mike’s record and leadership on tough issues, and our campaign is laser focused on getting out the vote before Super Tuesday.”

Littlefield, a former Utah State Democratic Party executive director, said, “We started this campaign eight weeks ago and through the hard work of our dedicated volunteers and staff, we have reached Utah voters at their doors, mailboxes and phones every day.“

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg pumps his fist as he is greeted by his supporters during a rally at Venue 6SIX9 in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Buttigieg spokesman Ben Halle said the campaign does not comment on polling, but he cited the turnout at Buttigieg’s rally in Salt Lake City and endorsements that include Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“We’ve got over 2,000 volunteers in state. There’s a lot of energy in Utah for Pete. His message is resonating and we expect the campaign to be competitive,” Halle said, reaching at least the 15% vote threshold in Utah required to share in a state’s Democratic delegates.

Biden’s Utah coordinator, former Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland, said he’s counting on a big win by his candidate in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday where he’s polling well for a “big bounce” in Utah and other Super Tuesday states.

“We would have liked to have seen him more, but the time, you know, he got stretched,” Holland said of Biden. “Bloomberg had some time to do some of these things because he wasn’t participating in anything but the last two debates. I just think Biden thought that in Utah, the moderate independents would come out and be here. We’ll see.”

Holland attributed Sanders’ success to bringing in new, progressive voters in 2016 “who wouldn’t probably have identified themselves as Democrats before but were excited. It kind of became a little bit of a bandwagon thing. ... Bernie turned them on. They felt the burn.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during an campaign rally Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer

Now that Utah has switched back to a primary election from a caucus, Holland said he expects Utah voters in the largely by-mail Democratic primary election to be “a lot more pragmatic than the progressives, rather than herds of first-timers.”

Utah, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, isn’t viewed as likely to reject Republican President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term in November even though he is relatively unpopular here. But the presidential primary is focusing attention on how the state views Democratic presidential candidates.

Jason Perry, head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he believes Utahns are responding to how they see Bloomberg handling the economy as compared to other Democrats in the race, while Sanders is relying on his popularity here.

Super Tuesday will give the country an opportunity to see how Democrats perform “in states like ours that are historically red,” Perry said. “No one can say the voice of Utahns doesn’t matter this election cycle. ... Candidates will use what happens in Utah to their advantage if they can, or have to explain it if they cannot.”

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NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor Katy Tur said she’s curious to see what Utah’s Super Tuesday results mean for Republicans in the state “who might not be so happy with the president. Do they vote Democratic? And if they do, who do they vote for and what does that say about the most electable Democrat in November?”

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Gov. Gary Herbert, who has advocated for rotating regional primaries to give the West a bigger voice in presidential elections, said Utah has been stuck “in the flyover zone” in past years, but joining other states on Super Tuesday has changed that.

“The fact that we’re a part of it is a great thing for Utah. It means we’re relevant. We can see that by all the candidates that have come to Utah to say, ‘Vote for me and here’s my platform and here’s what I’m going to do if elected,’” the governor said.

“And they’re spending a ton of money.”

Correction: An earlier version quoted Halle as saying the Buttigieg campaign has more than 200 volunteers in the state. It should have said 2,000.

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