Utah is one of a handful of states seeking to increase its visibility in presidential politics by moving its primary date to “Super Tuesday” (March 3, 2020). States often seek to increase their prominence in the presidential nomination process by moving the date of the state’s primary as early as possible, a tactic known as “frontloading.” States are, however, constrained by the rules of the two major parties which have allowed Iowa and New Hampshire to maintain their first in the nation status. In the 2020 primary contests, Utah joins 13 other states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia) and the territory of American Samoa in selecting its delegates for the national party conventions on Super Tuesday. Given recent changes to the timing and procedures of the Utah presidential primary, it will be interesting to see how the state fares on Super Tuesday.
Utah has traditionally been one of the states that voted later in the primary season and thus had little impact in the competition for candidate and media attention.
This is not surprising, as Utah is a relatively small western state and has not historically been a battleground state in presidential elections. Unlike Colorado and Nevada, which have gained attention in recent presidential contests because of their competitiveness, Utah has voted consistently for Republican candidates. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Thus, it was a bit of surprise when the Utah legislature agreed to fund a presidential primary and hold it on Super Tuesday. The legislature’s decision was in part a reaction to what happened in the state during the 2016 primary election (Davidson 2019; Roche 2019). In 2016, the state legislature chose not to fund a primary election and left the task to the state political parties. The Utah Democratic and Republican parties opted to hold caucus meetings to determine their convention delegates, although the Utah Republican party experimented with allowing registered voters who could not attend the caucus meeting to vote online for their preferred presidential candidate (technical problems, however, kept the online vote from being a success). Republican caucus voters in 2016 supported Senator Ted Cruz who was awarded all 40 of the state’s Republican delegates (followed in the voting by Governor John Kasich and Donald Trump). On the Democratic side, caucus attendees voted heavily for Bernie Sanders with Hillary Clinton finishing a distance second.
This is not surprising, as Utah is a relatively small western state and has not historically been a battleground state in presidential elections.
It is worth noting that Utah law allows the political parties to decide whether to hold an open or closed primary. Republicans, being the dominant party in the state, have opted for a closed primary, meaning that a voter must be registered as a Republican in order to participate in the Republican party’s selection process. Democrats use an open primary process meaning that anyone who is registered either as a Democrat or an unaffiliated voter may opt to participate in the Democratic primary. In 2016, caucus attendees were faced with long lines and a shortage of paper ballots at some caucus sites when a much larger than expected number of voters, many of whom were unaffiliated, attended the Democratic caucuses to support Sanders. Democratic party organizers printed 65,000 ballots for the meetings and had to print 15,000 more to accommodate the swell of support from the Sanders voters (Romboy 2016).
Since the 2020 primaries in Utah will be conducted as a state election rather than run by the parties as they were in 2016, the election will largely be held by mail ballot. The rules for who can vote in the mail primary follow those specified by the two major parties. All registered Republicans will be sent a Republican primary ballot. As the incumbent, President Trump faces only token opposition for the party’s nomination in Utah. Registered Democrats, and unaffiliated voters who opt in, will be sent the Democrat primary ballot. The Democratic ballot includes, among others, frontrunners Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former Republican mayor of New York City. Bloomberg was a late entry into the Democratic nomination contest and missed the early Democratic debates and chose not to compete in the four early state contests. Bloomberg’s campaign seeks to do well enough in the Super Tuesday states to win delegates and become a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Since the 2020 primaries in Utah will be conducted as a state election rather than run by the parties as they were in 2016, the election will largely be held by mail ballot.
Bloomberg’s unorthodox campaign for the Democratic nomination – skipping the traditional four early states and banking on doing well on Super Tuesday – is not unlike Utah’s long-shot efforts to attract attention from the presidential candidates by moving its primary to Super Tuesday. Will Utah be successful in competing for the attention of presidential candidates? Given that large states like California and Texas and important swing states like Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia are also voting on Super Tuesday, it seems unlikely. Still, the state’s move to Super Tuesday has helped to generate visits from candidates such as Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren. With a little luck, Utah’s effort to make itself more prominent in the selection of party nominees could pay off.
Davidson, Lee. 2019. “After chaos in Utah’s last presidential caucuses, bill advances to replace them with a Super Tuesday primary.” Salt Lake Tribune, March 8.
Roche, Lisa Riley. 2019. “Utah Dems cheer Super Tuesday primary.” Deseret News, March 24.
Romboy, Dennis. 2016. “Final tally: Sanders wins 29 delegates in Utah caucus.” Deseret News, March 31.
Matthew Burbank is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
Matthew Burbank is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah where he teaches classes on voting, public opinion, political parties, and research methods. He is the author of two books, Parties, Interest Groups, and Political Campaigns with Ronald Hrebenar and Robert Benedict (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Olympic Dreams: The Impact of Mega-events on Local Politics with Greg Andranovich and Charles Heying (Lynne Rienner Press, 2001), as well as a number of journal articles and book chapters.