SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign strategy is unprecedented, and his choice of rally location on Thursday to bounce back from an unsteady debate performance was unusual: Salt Lake City.
This is the first year Utah will vote on Super Tuesday, the March 3 contests that Bloomberg is basing his strategy on.
And Utah's Democrats in the largely Republican state are fired up about new attention from candidates courting their votes.
After arriving in Salt Lake City on a short plane ride following his heavily criticized debate performance in Las Vegas, Bloomberg found a friendly audience of hundreds focused on the topic he’d prefer to talk about: the effort to defeat Donald Trump.
Winning Utah on Super Tuesday won’t be a slam dunk in a state where Bernie Sanders remains popular with left-leaning voters. But Bloomberg is hoping his well-funded campaign can sway moderate independent voters, disaffected Republicans and undecided Democrats.
Bloomberg has visited the state's liberal-leaning, mountain-ringed capital city before and told the rally that every delegate counts.
“No voter is too liberal, too moderate or too conservative to help us make Donald Trump a one-term president!” Bloomberg said to cheers from the crowd. He did not take questions from reporters eager for a response from him about the debate, and senior advisers have declined requests for comment.
While conservative Utah is unlikely to flip for a Democratic presidential candidate in a general election, many of the state's voters have never warmed to Trump’s brash style or positions on immigrants and refugees.
“Utah is far more dynamic from a conservative perspective than it gets credit for,” said Reed Galen, an independent political consultant who worked for campaigns of the late Sen. John McCain, former President George W. Bush and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s got the right sort of demographic political makeup for those not on the progressive end of the spectrum.”
Bloomberg’s strategy has been to essentially create a parallel race to the Democratic nomination, eschewing the earliest primaries and focusing instead on the later, delegate-rich states like Texas, California and Arkansas that vote on March 3.
That method has never worked before in the primaries, but no candidate has ever brought Bloomberg's financial muscle. He’s worth an estimated $60 billion and has already spent more than$400 million building a campaign in more than two dozen states.
As in many Super Tuesday states, Utah airwaves have been blanketed with ads from the former New York mayor. They helped convince retired Salt Lake City attorney Hugh Bunker. Like several others at the rally, he once supported Vice President Joe Biden but feels Biden's campaign has “fizzled out.”
Bunker wants to vote for a candidate who can beat Trump and said he’s counting on Bloomberg’s political experience as New York's mayor and his fortune.
“He’s a real billionaire, a real self-made man,” Bunker said. “He has the financial and intellectual wherewithal to win.”
Brigham Young University student Alex Day, a Republican who deeply respects Trump critic Mitt Romney, said he likes moderate ideas from former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg as well as Bloomberg.
Day would like to see a stronger debate performance from Bloomberg before he decides, though. Allegations that Bloomberg created a hostile work environment and made crude comments toward women in the 1990s are serious, but not necessarily insurmountable, Day said.
“If someone is genuinely trying to apologize and put that behind them, we should let that happen,” he said.
Day said he considers himself very conservative on economic issues but finds Trump’s behavior and tweets so “corrosive” that he’d consider voting for Sanders, if he ends up as the nominee.
“I’m at the point where I would consider voting for someone who says they’re a socialist,” he said. “That shows to me how insane politics is right now.”