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Pete Buttigieg’s decision to step down could reshape Utah’s Super Tuesday primary

As of Friday, 333,000 people had voted, representing about 22.8% of active voters, according to state deputy elections director Justin Lee

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg waves goodbye to the crowd at a town hall at The Union Event Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg waves goodbye to the crowd at a town hall at The Union Event Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s decision to stop his bid for the White House brought swift reaction from supporters in Utah and fueled speculation on how it will reshape Super Tuesday in Utah and in the other 13 voting states.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released Thursday showed 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 Mayor Mike Bloomberg has helped propel him to second place.

Buttigieg had the support of 18% of Utah Democratic primary voters, which would have placed him in third place in the state, according to poll results.

As of Friday, the latest day early voting numbers in Utah had been counted, 333,000 people had voted, representing about 22.8% of active voters, according to Justin Lee, director of state elections.

Three people with knowledge of Buttigieg’s decision told The Associated Press he began informing campaign staff on Sunday. Buttigieg later spoke from South Bend, Indiana, to announce his decision to step down from the race. During the speech he gave a shoutout to Salt Lake City and his supporters there before making the formal announcement to end his campaign.

“I will no longer seek to be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president, but I will do everything in my power to make sure that we have a new Democratic president come January,” Buttigieg declared.

Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate to seriously contend for the presidency, tried to make the case that his party thrived when it embraced candidates who offered generational change. But the 38-year-old Afghanistan War veteran ended up being more successful at winning older voters while Sanders, 78, captured the energy of younger ones.

“Thank you @PeteButtigieg for your ethical and engaging campaign. Your Utah staff and volunteer team is amazing and I can’t wait to see what you do next. You impacted our nomination process for the right reasons. Sad to see you go but a fan forever!” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson tweeted.

Voters saw Buttigieg in the more moderate lane of the Democratic field, and he flourished early with a top finish in the Iowa caucuses and a close second-place finish in New Hampshire. But as the race moved to more diverse states, less dependent on college-educated voters, Buttigieg struggled.

Wilson’s father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, who had also supported Buttigieg, said he was a “little disappointed, but I do recognize the very austere parameters that were involved in running for president of the United States.

“He also added so much to where we are today by a really clear ability to speak to issues and the need for solving them. I think he appealed to a wide spread of people, and he encouraged many, many people to get aboard, and he did that based on the political base of being a mayor. And I think mayors have a very practical way of solving problems. And he would’ve been a really fine president,” Ted Wilson said.

The question now is who will benefit in Utah from Buttigieg’s departure?

“I think most of those will either go to Amy Klobuchar or to Vice President (Joe) Biden” or former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Boyd Matheson, Opinion Editor of the Deseret News, said.

“It definitely will help the more moderate candidates. It will help bolster their numbers a little bit with there only being three of them in the race.”

He said the national impact will probably follow what is seen in Utah in terms of who Buttigieg’s supporters turn to, and how many of them voted early.

“The early voting is really going to be an interesting dynamic,” he said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who had also endorsed Buttigieg, declined comment Sunday evening through her spokeswoman. Her introduction and endorsement of Buttigieg during a visit to Salt Lake City on Feb. 17 brought enthusiastic cheers as he took the stage in front of 4,500 attendees.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg wave to the crowd at a town hall at The Union Event Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Mendenhall highlighted her endorsement for Buttigieg before introducing him to the audience.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg wave to the crowd at a town hall at The Union Event Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Mendenhall highlighted her endorsement for Buttigieg before introducing him to the audience.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who supported Buttigieg as well, reacted to the news of him dropping out of the race by reflecting on his campaign.

“I think a lot of us who were supporters, of course, we’re going to feel sad, and we’re going to miss his presence because a lot of us were motivated by the moral compass that he brought to the conversation,” Gill said.

“I think America was hungry for this new politics, which was based on inclusion and unifying us as a nation rather than the division and the devisiveness that we found ourselves in.”

But Gill said he, like others in the party, will “keep the eye on the prize” with whoever is elected to face Trump in November.

Klobuchar is expected in Salt Lake City Monday morning and will try to capitalize on the change in the race. Sanders is also expected to rally in Utah Monday. Sunday night he thanked Buttigieg and invited his supporters to join him in his presidential quest.

Klobuchar also reacted on Twitter: “Pete Buttigieg has run an inspiring and historic campaign. I have so much respect for you @PeteButtigieg and know there are great things ahead. And both John and I are big fans of Chasten!” she said, a reference to Buttigieg’s husband.

Matheson said of Klobuchar: “She’s an interesting, under-the-radar candidate, and with as big a number as Mayor Pete had in Utah, if all of his votes went to one person, that would be a real game-changer.”

He predicted Utah would see “a lot” from both candidates within the next day.

Addressing speculation about why Buttigieg exited the race before Super Tuesday, Matheson said, “My guess is, he is a very appealing vice presidential candidate, surely for a Mayor Bloomberg or a Vice President Biden because he would be a young, openly gay man that’s progressive but not scary-progressive for a lot of the Midwest voters.”

He also most likely recognized he doesn’t have a path forward as the race gets more complicated, Matheson said.

“He’s a very practical guy. He’s got a business background. He’s used to looking at numbers, and looking at data, and then making decisions. And so I’m sure that played into it quite heavily as well,” according to Matheson.

On Biden’s victory in South Carolina, where he got 48.4% of the votes and 35 delegate points, Matheson said he had to win by at least 15 points to “really get a rebound effect, to get a bounce. He doubled that, so he’s clearly going to get some bounce.”

“It’ll be interesting in Utah to watch how Biden’s big win in South Carolina impacts the Bloomberg numbers. Current Bloomberg support likely includes a lot of Biden fans who had given up on the former vice president. They may return to Biden after the weekend,” Matheson said.

Contributing: Dan Bammes

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