As Bernie Sanders scanned the tops of the heads of 14,000 Utahns during a rally in Salt Lake City on March 18, he opened his remarks by joking that he’d received bad information: He thought Utah was a Republican state. Yet here were his people, old, young, really old and really young, all sandbagging work on a Friday to see a quite old man preach some politics.
If there were any doubt four days ago that Utahns were energized by this presidential campaign, those doubts were dashed this evening as the state held its first presidential caucus in two decades, drawing massive crowds.
In the Avenues neighborhood, at Ensign Elementary School, the line to cast a vote in the Democratic caucus stretched through the hallways of the school, doubling back upon itself before voting even began at 6 p.m.
The hour and a half wait to fill out a blue ballot was much longer than that by 7:30 p.m, as the line wound outside the school, south on K Street, then East on 11th Avenue and then up Terrace Hills Drive—a distance of roughly half a mile, without counting the line inside the school.
Lengthy lines were also reported at Emerson Elementary School, in the Harvard/Yale neighborhood, and election officials were saying that so long as voters were in line by 8:30 p.m., the would be allowed to cast a ballot.
It is possible that a perfect storm of sorts converged to spike interest in this event. First, the pull of candidates like Sanders, who has preached a populist message of health care for all, free higher education, bridging the wage gap between men and women, demilitarizing police forces and railing against America’s election system that is awash with the cash from corporations and millionaires.
The race between Sanders and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been tighter than many pundits expected when the race began, with Sanders claiming nine states to Clinton’s 19. Sanders has won the support of 844 delegates to Clinton’s 1,163.
On the Republican side, the campaign of businessman and reality television star Donald Trump has drawn big audiences in Utah, though Texas Senator Ted Cruz was leading in the polls here.
Trump also spoke to his supporters during a rally in downtown Salt Lake City on March 18. His promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and his bombastic statements about Mexicans and Muslims are now an undeniable draw to many Americans.
The combination of Trump and Sanders in the race has appeared to galvanize a well of Americans—and Utahns—who might otherwise stay home from voting, as 68 percent of Utahns did during its primary election in 2008, when an incumbent president was not on the ballot.
And that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats appear firm in who will be their respective candidate, has thrown Utah into the unfamiliar place of being nationally relevant.
The Republicans are competing for 40 delegate votes from Utah, while Democrats are vying for 37.
The caucus format hasn’t been tried in Utah for 20 years. Its emergence this year is the result of a decision in 2015 by the Utah Legislature to withhold $3 million that would have been spent on a special primary election for the race. Fueling the decision to not budget this money was controversy surrounding the Senate Bill 54 compromise, which thwarted a ballot initiative that aimed to bring open primary elections to Utah.
Without state support to hold an election, the parties themselves must foot the bill for today’s caucus events.
In recent presidential elections, Utah has either cast its ballots during the regular primaries in June—making it one of the last states to have its say in the presidential races—or host a special primary election.
In 2008, the state hosted a special primary on Feb. 5 that drew 32 percent of the state’s registered voters. President Obama won among Democrats with 74,538 votes.
In 2012, with Mitt Romney running on the Republican ticket, and with Obama running as an incumbent, the primary was held in June, with Romney raking in 93 percent of the vote. No need to spend $3 million to find that out in a special election.
And in 2004, the state also held its primary in June, when earnest general election campaigns were already underway by President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
It seems quite clear that Utah—for decades dominated by conservative politics—is ready to be a player in the process of choosing presidential candidates. At least a few thousand of my neighbors thought so.