Why Trump Could Turn America's Most Republican State Blue

Why Trump Could Turn America's Most Republican State Blue

By Sean Braswell


Mitt Romney is far from the only Mormon who doesn’t like Donald Trump.

By Sean Braswell

This story is part of a series about purple states — those coveted places in America that could just swing to either side of the aisle in November.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last GOP presidential nominee, Mormon businessman Mitt Romney, won a whopping 93 percent of the vote in Utah’s 2012 caucus en route to handing Barack Obama his biggest statewide thumping in the predominantly Mormon and Republican state. So naturally, when Donald Trump turned up in the state’s capital, Salt Lake City, prior to this year’s March caucuses for a major rally, he went right after one of Utah’s favorite political sons. “Are you sure he’s a Mormon?” Trump asked the crowd about Romney. “Are we sure? He choked, he choked. It was so sad.”

Trump later claimed he was joking, but if the caucus results were any indication — Trump finished last with 14 percent of the vote — many Utahns weren’t laughing. Utah hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate in half a century, but the state’s largely Mormon population makes it an uneasy fit for the brash nominee, and there’s a good chance the reddest state in the union could be looking unusually purple come November.

Can the Clinton campaign make Utah truly competitive in the fall?

In the lead-up to the caucuses in March, a local Deseret News/KSL poll made headlines when it had Hillary Clinton beating Trump by 2 points and Bernie Sanders beating him by 11 points among likely Utah voters. According to a Y2 Analytics poll, only 29 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers said they would vote for Trump if he were the nominee. (Neither the Trump or Clinton campaigns responded to requests for comment on their chances in Utah.) The best polling in the state, says political scientist Tim Chambless of the University of Utah and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, still has Trump with just a slight edge over Clinton, but both candidates have soft support, and there remains a large number of undecided voters — placing a state that has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964 by at least 19 percentage points suddenly in play. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Chambless. Utah Republicans are “doing a very awkward dance right now — they just can’t bring themselves to support Donald Trump.”

The main reason for this, of course, is how poorly Trump plays among Mormons, who make up around three-quarters of Utah voters. Despite his romp through the GOP primaries, Trump has consistently performed poorly in areas with large Mormon populations. Mormon voters value honesty, integrity and family in their political leaders, and Trump’s colorful past, his habits of cursing and crude insults, including, says Chambless, his questioning of Romney’s religious beliefs, has turned off large numbers of them in Utah.

But there’s more to it than the vulgarity. Mormons also tend to be regular churchgoers and highly educated, two groups that have not tended to support Trump in high numbers. The GOP nominee’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims also does not go over well in a state settled by religious exiles who have experienced more than their fair share of religious intolerance. And the promise to build a massive wall to keep out immigrants is anathema in a state that promotes itself as welcoming to minorities and immigrants, and where 13 percent of residents are Hispanic. Moreover, many Mormons have served on missions in Muslim and Latin American countries where Trump’s words, says Chambless, “send a negative message to LDS missionary efforts.”

So what can the Clinton campaign do to help ensure that Utah voters’ misgivings about Trump make the state truly competitive in the fall? For starters, says Christopher Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, she should come to the state. Clinton was the only major candidate who did not visit the Beehive State during the primary season, where she lost by almost 60 points to Sanders. To turn Utah purple, much less blue, Democrats will also need a high voter turnout, says Chambless, particularly among Hispanic and younger voters, something of a challenge in a politically uncompetitive state where turnout has been receding for decades. Utah has youngest by average age of population in the union, and Clinton will need to harness the enthusiasm that younger voters there expressed for Bernie Sanders, who turned out 14,000 strong for a rally in Salt Lake City.

The other wild card is Romney. Were he to endorse Clinton, or throw his weight behind a third-party candidate such as libertarian Gary Johnson — who Chambless says could easily siphon off 6 to 10 percent of the vote (mostly at the expense of Trump) — then Utah could get very interesting. But Clinton still has her work cut out for her. Utah has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate or as its governor. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that a Republican will win in November,” says Karpowitz, “but it’s still the most likely outcome.” And to really change that, the Democrats would have to invest some considerable resources in building a ground game that could persuade voters that Clinton is worth leaving the GOP fold for — a big ask, particularly given voters’ misgivings about her own honesty and trustworthiness.

Still, says Chambless, 2016 represents the best chance Utah Democrats have had since LBJ to win the state. And just having a competitive presidential election for a change, says Karpowitz, would alone be “a fantastic thing for the health of Utah’s electoral politics.”