SALT LAKE CITY, March 24, 2016 — Donald Trump has rolled through state after state, through primaries and caucuses, accumulating delegates. His successes increasingly reinforce the narrative of Trump as the inevitable nominee. The lesson seems to be, no matter what his rivals—aided by conservatives and Republicans of the Old Order—do to stop him, he just keeps getting stronger.
Still, each state offers a lesson of its own. In Arizona, we learned that Trump’s national campaign against illegal immigration sells easily in a border state.
In neighboring Utah, there were different lessons.
Turnout Wasn’t for Trump
As headlines blared since the night of the Utah caucuses, turnout was “unprecedented,” evidenced by long lines and ballot shortages.
At first glance, this seems to be part of the Trump phenomenon. He has said that a large part of his rationale for seeking the presidency is that he is bringing in millions of new and previously unengaged voters. He proudly proclaims that he is bringing over disaffected Democrats.
In Utah, almost 200,000 Republicans cast votes either online or in their neighborhood caucuses. Of those, Ted Cruz got almost 70 percent. Even Gov. John Kasich, whom few people are giving a sporting chance to get the nomination, beat Trump.
If Donald Trump is exciting GOP voters in Utah, it is to try to prevent him from becoming their nominee.
Still, it might not be that impressive. Four years ago, more than 240,000 Republicans cast ballots in the presidential primary. Attending a caucus takes more commitment, and a primary this cycle may have generated larger turnout.
The Utah GOP was expecting about 200,000 participants, which is very high for a caucus year. But right now, the nomination is high up in the air. Numbers that high suggest excitement over being in a position to matter, rather than enthusiasm for any particular candidate.
If the parties want higher turnout in their primaries, they ought to consider designing a system that would leave the contest undecided for as long as possible. Consider that Democrat caucus turnout in Utah was fivefold what it was in 2012.
Utah Does not Like the Clintons
Bernie Sanders has a much better claim on attracting new voters than does Donald Trump. On the Democratic side of the ledger, turnout this week was staggeringly high compared to past cycles. The Salt Lake Tribune estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 Democrats caucused in 2012, and 5,000 fewer than that in the midterms of 2014.
This week, almost 80,000 showed up, mostly to rebuke Hillary Clinton.
Utahns understand that the left here leans harder left than in most places. But this is Sanders’ most impressive win next to his home state endorsement on March 1, in which he won 86 per cent of the popular vote.
Utah Democrats love Sanders. The party skews young here, and there are fairly large college crowds throughout the state.
But we also were reminded that Utah does not have any affection for the Clintons.
In 1992, Bill Clinton won 32 states and lost 18. In one of those 18—Utah—he came in third place behind independent candidate Ross Perot.
Four years later Clinton won re-election easily against Bob Dole, just weeks after designating nearly two million acres of land in Southern Utah as a national monument. President Clinton declared the site from Arizona, amid protests from Utah politicians on both sides of the partisan divide.
Aside from the slights of neglecting to notify Utah officials of the designation and refusing to step into the state for the announcement, there was the immediate suspicion that the move was nakedly political. Clinton sided with environmentalists against land and energy developers at the peak of a national campaign—all this after he had made assurances that no designation was imminent.
Perhaps Utahns don’t easily forget.
Winner-take-all and the Narrowed Field Doesn’t Clarify
The most important lesson from Utah is that the winner-take-all phase of the primary doesn’t make it any easier for Trump to reach the magic number of 1,237 delegates before the convention.
He needs about 500 additional delegates to wrap it up. There are 848 remaining. So he would need to take in about 58 per cent of the delegates still up for grabs, when he has only won about 45 per cent of delegates so far.
Some of the early delegates went to candidates who have since dropped out, so in coming contests, a higher share ought to be available to Trump. But on Super Tuesday, after the field had narrowed considerably, Trump won only 43 per cent of available delegates.
In the March contests leading up to Super Tuesday II, Trump won only 33 per cent of delegates.
On the second Super Tuesday, his share jumped back up to 58 per cent, fueled by a huge win in Florida.
But Utah shows that winner-take-all can cut both ways.