In most presidential elections, predicting the winner of the heavily-Mormon state of Utah is a non-exercise. Democrats have won the state exactly once since 1952, in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide re-election; Republicans, meanwhile, have averaged 61 per cent of the popular vote and a 29-point margin of victory over the Democratic candidate. The 2016 election, however, seemed to be a departure from usual order. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, faced historically steep disapproval ratings in Utah and polled so poorly that the state briefly appeared to be a toss-up on the eve of the election. Some commentators warily proposed that Utah, one of the most reliably Republican states in the union, could throw its vote to the Democratic Hillary Clinton or even to the last minute independent candidate and Utah native Evan McMullin. These predictions were ultimately dashed on election day, as Trump won Utah by a comfortable though historically small 17-point margin. Trump’s poor performance in Utah relative to past Republicans nevertheless demands greater attention to the political beliefs of Mormon Americans. The disapproval many Mormons express towards President Trump over issues of character and immigration policy could bring these voters to drift away from the Republican Party in favor of alternatives that are more consistent with their own faith.
Why Mormons Resisted Trump
Mormons, or adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), generally receive little attention from researchers of elections and public opinion. Mormons are currently estimated to be slightly less than two per cent of the American population, with the vast majority being concentrated in rural Western states such as Utah (51%), Idaho (20%), and Wyoming (10%). Mormons consistently rank as one of the most reliably Republican religious groups in the United States next to white evangelical Christians, with 70 per cent of Mormons considering themselves Republican or Republican-leaning according to Pew Research Center. Analysis of the religious right often focuses primarily on evangelical and fundamentalist Christians that have historically dominated the movement, resulting in the nuances of Mormon politics and culture to be overlooked due to their position as a minority among even conservative voters.
In spite of their reliable and staunch conservatism, Mormons were also one of the resistant segments of the Republican base to Donald Trump’s primary campaign in 2016. Many of Trump’s worst primary states were in the rural West, pulling just 14 per cent of the vote in the Utah caucuses and performing similarly poorly in Wyoming and Idaho. Later in the campaign, polls showed a dire 61 per cent of Utahns disapproving of the Republican candidate. Many notable Mormon politicians also delayed endorsing Trump for President until late in his campaign or outright refused. Most notably, former Republican presidential nominee and Utah political icon Mitt Romney refused to endorse Donald Trump for President, publicly feuding with the 2016 nominee and stating that he was “dismayed” with the state of the party. The LDS-owned Deseret News, one of the biggest newspapers in the state of Utah, publicly called for Trump to resign his candidacy in October of 2016.
A significant portion of Mormon voters, clearly, were not happy with the Republican Party’s nominee in 2016. There are several reasons that could explain why Donald Trump has been so unpopular among Mormon voters, one of which being his personal character (or perceived lack thereof). Mormons are one of the most religiously devout and involved denominations in the United States, Pew Research Center, measuring importance of religion, frequency of prayer, and frequency of church attendance, found that 69 per cent of Mormons ranked high in religious commitment in contrast with just 30 per cent of the American public. As a result, Mormons’ religious faith is disproportionately influential on their political stances and their view towards integrity in public figures relative to other faiths. Donald Trump, well known for multiple divorces, infidelity, and vulgarity, stood in stark contrast to Mormon voters’ ideal vision of character and Christianity. The Access Hollywood tape, which depicted Donald Trump gloating about sexual assaulting female contestants on his various reality television shows, was particularly problematic among Mormons and prompted several high-profile Mormon politicians to call for Trump to step down as nominee. Utah governor Gary Herbert described Donald Trump’s comments as “beyond offensive [and] despicable” and announced that he would not vote for either Trump or Clinton for President shortly after the taped was released.
The history of persecution faced by the Church of Latter-Day Saints also appears deeply influential on its adherents’ views towards religious minorities, particularly Muslim-Americans. David Campbell, political scientist and author of Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics, says that “Mormons as a group has [sic] deeply ingrained within their psyche that they are a religious minority that has experienced persecution in the not-distant past,” most notably the mass violence and attempted extermination the church faced in Missouri in the 1830s. A Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study found that 37 per cent of Mormons believe that Islam is at odds with American values, in contrast with 67 per cent of white evangelicals. Mormons were also 21 per cent less likely than white evangelicals to agree that the American way of life needs to be “protected from foreign influence.” Following Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim travel into the US during his 2016 campaign and again after his State Department’s announcement of its travel ban list in January of 2017, the Church of Latter-Day Saints issued pointed statements advocating religious freedom and calling for compassion towards all those “fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution.” Trump’s antagonism towards Muslim-Americans during his campaign likely resonated with Mormons’ own history of religious persecution, leaving them discouraged about the Republican nominee’s apparent embrace of religious intolerance.
The Church of Latter-Day Saints’ moderate line on immigration is also a probable factor in explaining Mormon voters’ antipathy towards Donald Trump. David Campbell, Christopher Karpowitz, and J. Quin Monson, authors of the upcoming book Mormonism and American Politics, have found that Mormons are one of the most welcoming religious groups in the nation towards immigrants, second only to Jewish-Americans. The authors theorize that Mormons are especially sympathetic towards illegal immigrants because of the number of Mormons that participate in mission trips to other countries, particularly the developing Latin American nations that many illegal immigrants come from in the United States. Mormons’ experience with overseas missions as well as their deeply-held religious faith, which emphasizes compassion towards the poor and suffering, makes them more sympathetic to the plight of many Hispanic immigrants in America. The western states where most Mormons live are also home to large Hispanic populations, and a PRRI study found that Mormons were more likely than other white Christians to say they live in a community with many new immigrants or that they had a close friend who was born outside of the United States. It appears that because of their experiences and compassion towards Hispanic immigrants in America, Mormons were much more likely to be resistant to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-Mexican rhetoric compared to the rest of the Republican base.
The Future of Mormon Politics
It’s unclear how the Mormon community’s disapproval of President Trump will influence Mormon politics in the long-term. A migration of Mormon voters to the Democratic Party, as some predicted during the 2016 campaign, appears unlikely. Hillary Clinton only modestly improved her share of the popular vote in Utah over Barack Obama’s 2012 performance. Her 27 per cent share of the vote is still far from enough for a Democratic presidential candidate to have a serious shot at winning the state in future election, and only 11 per cent of Utahns are registered Democrats as of 2017. The collapse in the Republican margin between 2012 and 2016 seems instead to owe mainly to former Romney supporters opting to vote Evan McMullin, the former Republican, independent Mormon, and Utah native who made a name for himself by running as a third party against Donald Trump in various, mostly rural western states. If Mormons do start to drift away from the Republican Party due to opposition to Donald Trump, they are unlikely to make peace with Democrats over divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights. Indeed, despite there being multiple open and contentious post-2016 elections in Utah, including the Senate seat currently held by Orrin Hatch and the special election to replace Congressman Jason Chaffetz, little attention has been given to potential Democratic challengers. If anything, Democrats are more likely to benefit from Mormon voters staying home on election day in states like Arizona and Idaho due to disillusionment with Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
Third parties and independent candidates, on the other hand, may have greater prospects for growth in states with considerable Mormon populations, particularly Utah. There is already precedent for third parties to be taken seriously in the state at the presidential level. Evan McMullin managed to pull in 21 per cent of the popular vote despite declaring his campaign in August of 2016 and having little in the way of campaign infrastructure, and billionaire independent Ross Perot managed to place second in Utah in 1992, beating out the Democratic Bill Clinton. The Libertarian Party has been floated as a possible alternative in Utah, but Mormon voters are unlikely to embrace the party as a whole due to its liberal positions on social issues such as gay marriage and marijuana. Instead, a third party in Utah may look more like the United Utah Party, which launched in 2017 as a centrist alternative to the major two parties by Brigham Young University political science professor Richard Davis. The party’s platform emphasizes government ethics reform in addition to combining a moderate stance on immigration with traditionally conservative positions on issues including abortion, the Second Amendment, and government regulations. Such a party could appeal to former Republican Mormons put off by the president’s personal indiscretions and hostility to immigrants as well as to more moderate voters in the state. Further, a UtahPolicy.com poll found that 63 per cent of Utahns consider themselves “not very loyal” to either party and would be open to voting for a third party like the United Utah Party. Though voters often describe themselves as being less partisan than they really are in public opinion polls, there is clearly some room for an alternative to both the Democratic Party and Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Nonetheless, the best way to see if Mormon voters are actually willing to leave the Republican Party is to watch upcoming elections in Utah and other heavily-Mormon states. Recent polls have found lackluster approval ratings for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who is up for re-election in 2018, prompting speculation over whether he could be beaten by an independent Mitt Romney or by his likely Democratic challenger, Jenny Wilson. Similarly, Salt Lake County mayor and Democrat Ben McAdams has announced that he will challenge Congresswoman Mia Love in Utah’s 4th congressional district next year, where he may have a better-than-usual shot at victory as Salt Lake County makes up 85 per cent of the district. These races, and others in the region, could be a portent of things to come if non-Republicans are able to emerge victorious among Utah voters. In addition, Evan McMullin may run again as an independent in 2020 should Trump seek re-election, and would have considerably more preparation and infrastructure in a second campaign. Analysts of public opinion and elections would do well to keep an eye on these and related races in upcoming years to see whether there is serious movement away from the Republican Party among Mormon Americans. If other candidates – whether they be Democrats, United Utah, independent, or something else entirely – see electoral success with Mormon voters, the U.S. could witness the development of an even more distinct Mormon political identity unique from the rest of the religious right. This would be a historic political development and yet another splinter in the Republican Party’s polarized and conflicted base.