As the presidential primary race moves west Tuesday, all eyes are on Utah, where both parties' respective frontrunners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are expected to lose, setting the stage for an even more protracted, complex nomination battle.
On the Republican side, Mr. Trump's rivals are focused on stopping the billionaire, who is favored in winner-take-all Arizona, from reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination. They want to force a brokered convention in Cleveland in July. At this point, blocking Trump is the best chance for remaining GOP candidates Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
On the Democratic side, stakes are high for Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom polls show winning two out of the three Democratic races - Idaho and Utah, though not Arizona. Big wins for Mr. Sanders will give the Vermont senator momentum after his primary losses last week, and justification to keep his campaign going, perhaps until July.
Here's what we're watching on Western Tuesday:
It's very likely the Republican's party's frontrunner won't win in Utah, often called the reddest state in the country. Most observers say that's because Trump's brash style – cursing, crude references, and proposals to deport illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country – doesn't sit well with the wholesome values and compassionate worldview of Mormons, who make up 62 percent of the population in Utah. In fact some of Trump's biggest losses to date have been in counties with large Mormon populations, like Madison County in Idaho, where he won less than 8 percent of the vote.
Instead, the Beehive State is expected to turn to Senator Cruz, who has a 99-percent chance of winning the Utah caucuses, according to the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight. But the Texas senator doesn't just want to win, he wants to win more than 50 percent of the state's Republicans. That magic number will allow him to take all 40 of the state's GOP delegates.
To that end, Cruz is pulling out all the stops. He's brought in perhaps the most effective surrogate in Utah, former GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, one of the country's most prominent Mormons, who's been recording robocalls and campaigning hard for Cruz. Although he's recently supported Gov. Kasich, Romney said in a statement Friday he will vote for Cruz because he represents "the only path that remains to nominate a Republican rather than Mr. Trump."
On the Democratic side, Sen. Sanders is expected to win in largely white Utah.
Arizona aids frontrunners
While they lose in Utah, the Democratic and Republican frontrunners are expected to win in Arizona. Polls in the Western states are sparse, but at least one state poll shows Trump in the lead with Arizona Republican primary voters, potentially giving him all 58 of the state's winner-take-all delegates. The poll shows Trump at 46 percent, Cruz at 33, and Kasich at 17. That may be because his anti-immigrant message is resonating with the state's non-immigrant population, for whom illegal immigration is a big topic.
On the Democratic side, the state's large immigrant population is expected to give Mrs. Clinton, who has historically performed well with Hispanics, a big boost, and a big win – Arizona has 85 Democratic delegates, which it awards proportionally.
Kasich as spoiler
"If John Kasich were not in the race, we would get to 1,237" delegates, Cruz told audiences in Utah, adding that Kasich is a "spoiler if he pulls just enough votes to let Trump win states."
Governor Kasich, who's still in the race despite trailing with 143 total delegates and only one state, his home state of Ohio, under his belt, is facing mounting pressure to step out. He's coming under fire as a spoiler who is splitting the anti-Trump vote, ultimately helping the billionaire candidate. Paradoxically, Kasich may be better off tamping down Trump's numbers by encouraging supporters to vote for Cruz, rather than splitting the anti-Trump vote – especially in winner-take-all states like Arizona.
"If anything, Kasich should urge his supporters in Utah to vote for Cruz rather than compete there and risk splitting the anti-Trump vote," writes Hot Air's Allahpundit.
That's why Cruz has repeatedly told audiences that a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump; why Utah Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed Cruz on Monday, noting that he's most likely to reach 50 percent threshold needed in the state to collect all its delegates and defeat Trump; and why Romney, who previously appeared at a Kasich rally, told Fox News Monday night that support for Kasich is actually a boost for Trump.
Sanders as comeback king - for now
Sanders is expected to soar on Tuesday's voting, with wins expected in two of the three states participating in the Democratic races Tuesday, Idaho and Utah.
That's important for Sanders, who suffered big losses in the March 15 primaries, and has been arguing that he'll regain momentum when the race moves West, to his wheelhouse. Big wins for Sanders will give him momentum on Saturday, when three more Western states caucus, and give the self-described socialist, who has been facing pressure to pull back his attacks on Clinton, reason to keep campaigning hard.
Of course, Clinton remains in the lead with 1,630 delegates, compared to Sanders' 870, and she's expected to win more in Arizona, as well as future contests. Still, expected wins for Sanders – and Cruz – on Western Tuesday will all but ensure the race is a long slog until summer.