SALT LAKE CITY — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the top pick of Utahns in Tuesday's GOP presidential preference caucus election and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is their choice in the Democratic caucus vote, according to a new Deseret News/KSL poll.
Cruz also leads GOP frontrunner Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich among Republicans who said they're likely to participate in the caucus, as does Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among a similar group of Democrats.
Unlike past election years where candidates from both parties ignored what's seen as one of the nation's most reliably Republican states, Utah is in the thick of the hotly contested 2016 race.
All of the candidates except Clinton have made campaign stops in Utah over the past several days and both the candidates and political action committees are blanketing Utah airwaves with well over $1 million in television and radio commercials.
"People are watching what's happening in Utah," said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "We should take note of the responsibility we have as a state and we should show up to the caucuses."
Pollster Dan Jones said its hard to predict this year's presidential nomination vote.
That's because voters are casting their ballots through party-run caucuses instead of in a traditional primary election, and the same poll found that while 67 percent of Utahns plan to participate, 56 percent said they don't know where to go to vote.
And the poll was taken before Florida Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the race after losing the March 15 primary in his home state. Rubio trailed Cruz and Trump but was ahead of Kasich among likely GOP caucus participants.
The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates March 8-15 of 500 registered voters statewide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent. The margin of error among likely voters by party is closer to plus or minus 7 percent.
Jones said he believes Cruz will be the winner in Tuesday's GOP online and caucus meeting balloting, but won't exceed the 50 percent mark needed to take all of Utah's 40 Republican delegates.
Trump, who has the support of 21 percent of the likely Republican caucus-goers to 42 percent for Cruz, 17 percent for Rubio and 13 percent for Kasich, may fall from second place Tuesday, Jones said.
He said the billionaire businessman and reality TV star hurt himself with Utah voters by questioning whether 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney was a Mormon during a Salt Lake campaign rally that saw confrontations with protestors outside the event.
"I think he's gone down," the pollster said. He said those who attended Trump's rally "are just as avid as they’ve ever been. But the way it was on television and so forth, people are more concerned about the riots and also some of the things he said."
Jones said it's also not clear what Rubio's supporters in Utah will do. Some, like Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, have now endorsed Cruz. The pollster said other Rubio voters may decide to skip the caucus vote.
Gov. Gary Herbert has put himself in the "anybody but Trump" camp and met with both Cruz and Kasich while they were in Utah. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt said he's backing Kasich to keep Trump from winning the GOP nomination outright.
Romney, who labeled Trump a fraud and a phony in a widely covered speech at the U. earlier this month, announced Friday he'll vote in Utah's caucus for Cruz. Like Leavitt, Romney is pushing for a contested GOP national convention in July.
If Trump ultimately is selected as the Republican Party's nominee to run in November, the poll found Utah voters would vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964, as reported by the Deseret News Sunday.
Tom Love, president of Love Communications, Utah's leading Democratic communications firm, said Utah voters see Trump differently than the rest of the country.
"He runs a campaign of hate and fear. Utahns don't like that. We don't believe in that," Love said. "The fabric of our state is coming together as a community and bettering ourselves. That's a basic Mormon tenant going back to the beginning."
Sanders, who has the support of 52 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in the poll to 44 percent for Clinton, appeals to Utah voters because he's seen as "authentic. He is true to himself and we like that," Love said.
Utah Republicans ought to be "scared to death" about the possibility of Trump being on the November ballot, he said.
"That will have such an effect on every other Republican on the down ballot," Love said. "I think we'll have the lowest turnout in our state's history, because Republicans won't turn out."
Perry said that gives caucus voters more reason to show up Tuesday night.
"Caucuses are not always very well attended," Perry said. "This is not just a traditional year. This is not just electing who's going to represent you at the state convention. This is being able to weigh in on the presidential elections."
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