An excited group of Utahns went to the polls Tuesday and gave Republican Mitt Romney an overwhelming win and Democrat Barack Obama a solid, but less record-setting victory, early returns and exit-polling predictions show.
All 36 Utah national GOP delegates go to Romney since Utah, like many GOP primaries, are winner-take-all. Romney was running above 80 percent of the vote in early returns.
But Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., will split the 23 Democratic delegates based on how much of the vote each got in Utah's three U.S. House districts. And so Obama could end up with just 12 delegates to Clinton's 11 delegates, Utah Democratic leaders said.
Both the Associated Press and Barack's own campaign claimed victory in Utah shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m.
There is little doubt what will happen in Utah come November one of the most red states in the Union, Utahns have not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson carried the state in 1964. So whether the ultimate GOP nominee is Romney, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, he can safely count on the Beehive State.
Romney almost a favorite son for Utah since he is a member of the LDS Church and ran the successful 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics will get 33 Utah GOP delegates, plus three other delegates, which are the state party chairman and the two national committee members. By Republican Party rule, those three super delegates, like the other 33 delegates, must vote for Romney on the first ballot at the National Republican Convention in September, unless Romney releases them first, said Utah GOP executive director Ivan DuBois.
"We think voter turnout overall will be between 30 percent to 40 percent. And that is very good," said DuBois. Most of those voters will be Republicans. Even if Romney doesn't go on to win the nomination simply having a favorite son in the middle of the presidential election is exciting Utahns, said DuBois.
"We will be carrying a lot of energy into November here," he added.
Utah Democratic Party executive director Todd Taylor says he is most pleased by the number of Utahns who voted in the Utah primary, one of 24 Democratic contests across the states this "Super Tuesday."
Earlier Tuesday, before polls closed and actual ballot counting started, Taylor said perhaps as many as 100,000 Utahns could vote in the Democratic Party three times the turnout in the previous presidential primaries here in 1992, 2000 and 2004.
"This is very exciting for us," said Taylor. Democrats have been the minority party in Utah for more than 30 years, with twice as many Utahns identifying with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.
Utah Democrats have six super delegates party leaders and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. And Taylor said those six super delegates are morally-bound to vote for the overall Utah Democratic Party winner in the state unless released by that candidate before the first round of balloting in the National Democratic Convention in August.
So Obama can count on those six at least on the first round of convention voting.
About 35 Obama supporters at the Skybox Bar and Grille at The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City cheered "Yah! YaHOO!" when NBC called the Utah Democratic race for Obama soon after 8 p.m.
As the Obama party gathered steam and more backers arrived in front of the vast TV screens, the whooping was even louder when the network called Kansas for their man.
Obama supporter Megan Riffe, Salt Lake City, shouted: "Go Obama!"
Riffe said she's delighted by the numbers of the Democratic turnout. "We're just really excited about how many people turned out to vote for Hillary and Obama."
Contributing: Joe Bauman E-MAIL: [email protected]
E-MAIL: [email protected]