Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series covering the Utah-centric Super Tuesday strategies of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Our story on Pete Buttigieg can be found here.
SALT LAKE CITY — Pete Buttigieg has visited. Mike Bloomberg has now rallied here twice. There's no doubt about it: Utah's new, earlier Super Tuesday primary is drawing candidates to the Beehive State like never before, with almost two weeks left for more possible drop-ins.
Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, was a very late entry into the Democratic primary process (and the party in general, for that matter; he re-registered as a Democrat in October 2018), but he has swiftly climbed into genuine contention. He has skipped the first four voting states — Iowa, Vermont, Nevada and South Carolina — and will appear on the ballot for the first time on Super Tuesday, when Utahns head to the polls.
Bloomberg needs a strong showing that day to give his campaign real legs. Will Utah hand him a key primary victory?
First, a caveat: It remains to be seen how Bloomberg's Wednesday debate performance will play among the general electorate. Widely panned by the political press, it may or may not halt the momentum Bloomberg has generated by spending millions of dollars on campaign ads — ads those same observers generally acknowledge are effective.
Before his Salt Lake City rally on Thursday, several Utahns said they believe Bloomberg is the Democrats' best chance of taking the White House back.
"I kind of want to vote for him," said Lara Wiley, "because he's the only one that, I think, has a chance of beating Trump. He has enough attention and enough money to do it the way that Trump did."
"I've been mostly a Republican most of my life," said James Nickel. "But I'm horrified by Donald Trump, and I think Mike Bloomberg is the most likely candidate that can defeat him."
Bloomberg himself frequently evoked his electability during the rally, arguing more liberal candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders — the current Utah frontrunner and the state's 2016 Democratic primary winner — can't beat Trump from the far left.
Dan Knuchel said before the rally that he wanted to "thank" Bloomberg "for all his efforts in knocking out the orange man."
Laurie Stevenson said that she had watched Wednesday's debate and felt that Bloomberg "got some tough questions."
"A lot of the issues that people have were very, very difficult for him at the time," she said. "Stop and frisk, that's certainly problematic, but if you take it in the context of the times, what are you going to do? ... We can't view past events in the context of today's lens."
Stevenson was referring to a New York City police policy conducted during the Bloomberg administration, ostensibly aimed at fighting crime, where many young minority men were searched by police in what critics alleged was blatant racial profiling. Stop and frisk has become a liability for Bloomberg among many progressive voters, along with issues like nondisclosure agreements he has signed with former female employees.
Bloomberg said during Wednesday's debate that those women didn't "accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told."
Lauren Littlefield, the Bloomberg campaign's Utah state director and a former executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said Thursday that Bloomberg "kept his cool" during the debate and was "absolutely the grown-up in the room."
"One thing that's really important to me with leadership is a leader who's willing to admit that he made a mistake, and that he was wrong," Littlefield said. "I think Mike has done that when it comes to stop and frisk."
Littlefield said that Bloomberg is "the only candidate on the Democratic ticket who has a proven record of getting things done."
As for her strategy, Littlefield said the Bloomberg campaign has 20 staff members in Utah and two offices, with one opening in Draper this weekend. "And we've got hundreds of volunteers who are making thousands of phone calls and talking to Utah voters every day."
FiveThirtyEight, a statistical analysis website, projects Bloomberg to finish second in the Utah Democratic primary behind Sanders. It anticipates he will nab about 18% of the popular vote and six pledged delegates of a possible 29.
It also gives him a 1 in 8 chance of winning the most votes and delegates, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Democrats turned off by their party's left wing have several options this year. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg are all seen as more centrist than Sen. Elizabeth Warren and especially Sanders.
But none has the financial wherewithal to flood the airwaves with advertisements like Bloomberg, who has spent an estimated $2.23 million on TV commercials in Utah alone. While several local Democrats have thrown their support behind Buttigieg, like Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Utah Rep. Ben McAdams has endorsed Bloomberg.
"I think a candidate like Ben, who certainly puts his country over his party, is a huge asset to our campaign," Littlefield said.
This momentum shows that, Wednesday night aside, Bloomberg has a real chance of being a sort of "last moderate standing." If things break just right for him, Utah could be a big reason why.